April 15 in the US is tax-filing day and the nascent “tea party” movement is having a series of, erm, tea parties across the land, to protest at the Obama-Democrat tax plans stimulus bailout etc etc.

The “tea party” movement is a bunch of Republicans, conservatives, Ron Paulites, libertarians etc, allegedly with no core organising body, and no single political or online focus. It appears to have sprung up after CNBC talking head Rick Santelli — who usually presents from the trading-pit of an open-call futures market, or similar — gave an angry rant about mortgage buy-ups and bailouts on February 16, calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” on July 4.

Right-wingers who were already organising, blogging etc in informal groups appear to have taken up the motif and run with it, bringing the party forward to the day when Americans have to fork over to Uncle Sam. Now it’s bursting forth a full flowering of the, erm, grassroots.

That’s the story anyway. Behind the scenes however, it appears there’s a fair bit of what’s called “astroturfing” — the creation of a fake grassroots — through a myriad of companies and fronts, and the website Chicagoteaparty had been registered almost six months before Santelli’s rant.

The basic argument of the Tea Partyites is that Obama’s moderate quantitative expansion of government spending and progressive taxation — raising the highest rate of the latter to, as Paul Krugman noted, a rate 10% less than obtained under Ronald Reagan — is in fact the creation of socialism and the destruction of all freedom etc etc.

Of course there’s a couple of minor differences between the current events and the original Tea Party — quite aside from the fact that the term now refers to a gay-mixer-cum-s-x-party — the most significant being that the Boston Tea Party was staged against a colonial authority which gave the people concerned no representation while this one is being imposed by THE DEMOCRATICALLY ELECTED PRESIDENT AND PARLIAMENT OF THE COUNTRY CREATED BY THAT VERY EVENT YOU DUMMIES.

The TPers can’t acknowledge that, nor that they lost the popular vote, so instead they talk of a “silent majority” blah di blah di blah who represents the true spirit of American democracy which was not reflected in the actual, erm, voting process.

That does to get the enthusiasm going, but it doesn’t really work in the long run or even the medium or medium short run, because there’s no willingness to adopt a more rational position that would provide the basis for a sustained campaign.

To argue that the more prosaic case — that the Obama policies are a wrong direction, that they’ll lead to stagflation etc etc, all arguable cases doesn’t really get anyone juiced, doesn’t really affirm their selfhood.

That seems to be much of what the tea party movement is about — a lot of the placards you see in the coverage are of the “I’m Mad as Hell” variety, which is a statement about the placard holder, not the placard reader.

In other words, the Tea Party movement is really a form of identity politics, its purpose to simply give a beleaguered section of the public, currently rejected by history, a feeling that they still have solid ground to stand on. Anything less than hysteria won’t achieve that.

Of course, to a degree — that modern day TPers wouldn’t recognise — there’s a connection with the Boston Tea Party, in that that had a degree of fakery about it too. The Boston radicals were a relatively small bunch of agitators who staged the event not because they represented the public, but because they didn’t. The bulk of Bostonites were scarcely offended by the taxes the British were imposing and the intellectuals and professional agitators — Samuel Adams, John Hancock et al — were faced with the task of continually riling the people up to a pitch of fury which would push events beyond the point of no return.

The difference with the original revolutionaries was that they had a firm philosophy of right that they saw the American Revolution as advancing — a consistent theory of humanity deriving from Locke, Montesquieu, Milton and others — and which gave them the sense of necessary urgency that allowed them to face the prospect of the noose.

The Tea Partiers have a different idea of the good — low taxes, etc etc — but not of the Right, for even they can’t and don’t dispute that Obama is legitimately elected. Indeed one of their problems is keeping away the “Birth Certificate Movement”, the genuinely deranged groups who continue to advance the idea that Barack Obama was born outside the US, and is therefore not only ineligible to be President, but may also be a secret Muslim plant.

The Birth Certificate dodge is effectively the political taking on the form of the clinically paranoid, for people whose minds simply can’t cope with the idea of President Obama. But compared to the confusions of the TPers, they at least have a consistent theory that welds them together.

The TPers are already beginning to fray, with the Ron Paulites and other hardcore libertarians denounce the mainstream Republicans who’ve drifted into the movement as interlopers etc, while the social conservatives etc etc etc.

We will watch how it all unfolds with interest, though it must be said that no-one who has been through the left in the 80s or 90s really needs to know what’s going to happen…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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