No.18

One Nation recipes for the mad haters’ tea party

STONE the crows! It’s getting harder to hate the Yanks. What with President Obama being so popular with everybody who hated his predecessor. But antediluvian enemies of the land of the brave and the home of the free, who decided the US was an evil empire in 1968 and have not updated their ideas since, will always find a way. With George Bush (guilty of the high crimes of destroying dictatorships and evangelising for democracy) out of the way, critics of the US now denounce the people who voted for him.

In particular they are pointing at the Tea Party movement. In the Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday 17 April, Anne Summers wrote of, “hysterical Tea-baggers”, and the damage their hatred of government was doing, how President Obama is “struggling to hold the country together” and she warned, “the chance seems long gone of a rational national debate”.

Anybody who relies on the Fox and Friends cable TV breakfast show (nightly on Foxtel) for their ideas about America will agree with Dr Summers. It demonstrates that there is a fair bit of frothing among conservative commentators in the US media and the older Americans who agree with them. But, on the other side of the partisan divide, John Stewart’s far younger audience is equally upset, in a cooler, thinner and better dressed way, of course.

While the Tea (“taxed enough already”) Party wants the state out of their lives (except of course for the generous public healthcare the elderly access and the flash pensions paid to members of powerful unions) the other side laughs at its rhetoric of social conservatism and strident patriotism.

The trouble is the more the smarties scoff the more the self-proclaimed patriots feel patronised – and this only adds to the intensity of their emotions.

Sound familiar? Anybody who remembers the way the arbiters of political morality sneered at Pauline Hanson and her pals knows the script. Tea Party participants are racist, sexist, ill educated and armed to the teeth and rather than address their fears the correct response is to laugh at the way they prefer instant coffee to the black water Starbucks sells.

This is what the chattering class did with Ms Hanson in the middle 1990s. And didn’t that work well? The more strident the sneering, the more determined to have their say her supporters became. It was only when the idiocy of her economics and her uninformed ideas on everything from protectionism to population policy were revealed in rational debate that her support collapsed.

Certainly there was a swag of spivs among Ms Hanson’s supporters, a great many obsessive eccentrics, and there is no denying she plugged into a base of bigots. But the bulk of the 936,000 people who voted for her in the 1998 federal election were ordinary Australians frightened by financial uncertainty and the way the economy was adapting to globalisation.

And once the real political parties answered Ms Hanson’s argument and addressed her supporters’ fears her support evaporated. Former One Nation voters have put both Labor and the Liberals into power.

The same thing is likely to happen with the Tea Party. Its credibility will collapse as the insane ideas of the extremists who infest it become more obvious. President Obama is neither a Kenyan nor a Muslim; his government is not going to take everybody’s guns away, (although I bet he wishes it could).

Rather than the tool of Wall Street, Barack Obama is proposing regulatory reforms that the big banks hate. And while the Tea Party’s denunciations of the deficit are entirely correct their arguments against it would change fast if cuts to welfare and healthcare for older Americans were proposed to pay off the debt.

The Tea Party is less inspired by conspiracy theories than the protection of property and a belief that people struggling to hang onto it are the ones the government should help.

Tea Party members are inspired by the Boston protestors who poured East India Company tea into Boston Harbour in a 1773 dispute over the British Government’s import duty. But they are also descended from Daniel Shays, who led a small rebellion of Massachusetts farmers upset over debt and taxes in 1786. It did not come to much. The rebels were seen off by the militia with a couple of casualties and just about everybody involved was pardoned.

Not all Tea Partiers are committed to rational debate. Certainly there is a risk that some psycho who thinks Timothy McVeigh was martyred could start shooting. But the movement is at best a transitory threat to the stability of American politics – you can always tell the side that knows it does not have the numbers by the way it starts making threats, as Sarah Palin did when she urged her supporters to “reload”.

More than likely, the Tea Party – like Shay’s Rebellion – will end without doing any damage. The economy will, sooner or later, start to improve. As for the Tea Party’s impact in the November 2010 mid-term elections – if they vote at all, the radicals will vote Republican, just as they always have.

It’s tough for people who delight in feeling superior to Americans, but the next elections in the US will be no nuttier than normal.

stephen4@hotkey.net.au

'2012