As we inch closer to November 2nd, a burgeoning political bandwagon finds itself emboldened day by day. It is hard to escape the constant chatter regarding its representatives and their so-far-down-the-right isle-you-might-pass-Bill O’ Reilly, ideology. There is no doubt many predict this being perhaps a ‘tea party’ election, but is it really fair to say that this brand new force in American politics will be the determinant behind a probable Republican take back of Congress?
On a superficial level, yes it probably can. The ‘Tea Party’ has something that counts for a hell of a lot in politics- and particularly in midterm elections in the US- unfettered enthusiasm. In fact, this enthusiasm increasingly finds itself verging into anger and rage, which is lending itself to productive high level collaboration amongst members and their advocates. As it stands, many surveys expect tea party supporters to come and vote in droves on election day. One of the problems facing President Obama is that those groups he relied heavily on during his 2008 election campaign, particularly the young and black voters, have a track record of voting in rather lower numbers in midterms compared to a much more higher turnout of the older demographic- a voter to which the tea party is skewed towards.
So can the tea party be considered a genuine movement? many accuse it of not being a grassroots-level movement, but more of an ‘astro-turf’ movement, something put together by a bunch of Republican special interest groups. That is not to say that there is not a contrived attempt by the Republicans at the center to mobilize and harness the tea party so that they can reclaim seats. The party is surely not organized from above, opting for a more self-organizational route. They are a network of different groups, with many affiliate tea party memberships all over the country, that have come together rather spontaneously and are motivated by extreme disquiet at the way America has gone since Obama was elected.
A cause for concern is that the party is still is not convincingly clear on what it exactly wants. They say they are worried about the large deficit but at the same time they are not too keen on tax hikes of any kind, and furthermore they have shown no qualms on cutting back on medicare or defense- both issues regarded as sacrosanct by the constituency they seem to overwhelmingly represent.At face value, it seems that the deficit is the key issue they drive home continually- they harp about a golden age of American small government which probably existed way back before Woodrow Wilson- and they readily accept that the previous Republican administration was guilty of expanding the state beyond a healthy size.
While agreeing that they have not conjured up an explicit program that would pass muster as a political manifesto, one has to remember that they are not standing as a political party in their own right; they organize locally in order to ensure that the candidate that is voted into their district is someone they would consider a ‘real conservative’, and not the big government spouting members that they believe constitute the rest of the Republican party.
One can argue though, that there is not a huge constituency out there for shrinking back government to the degree the party believes is necessary. There is definitely not an appetite for a nightwatchman state that does virtually nothing, cuts welfare spending, dismantles the social security system, scales back medicare, and trims the defense budget. Americans are essentially conservative with a small ‘c’, and perhaps the majority will not look to vote for someone who happens to be so far radical in its policy objectives.
The tea party members themselves are quite blunt about their expectations. With the stagnant old bodies at the top of the Republican establishment, these freshly new blooded optimists with a thirst for reform and a top-down reassessment of Republican core values see the elections as an opportune time to plan an assault on the hierarchy, in what seems to look like an all-out GOP civil war in the making. If successful, there will be a much more pronounced right-wing caucus in the Senate and the House than seen before, taking on perhaps a leadership that is rather more centrist than they are. A similar situation transpired within the Conservative Party in Britain, and it was not a recipe for electoral or widespread political success.
The reality of the situation is however, at most they are not expected to send more than a contingent of tea party-leaning radical conservatives into congress following the midterms. And they will not dominate the party by any means. The present congressional leadership regards this noisy incoming crowd as a viable threat, and will do whatever it can from taking the reigns. But nevertheless, there will be a distinctly divided Republican caucus in both the House and the Senate. Short term, the tea party is a definite boon to a lethargic Republican party in desperate need of some shock-therapy. Long term implications are more telling, as Republicans will have to seriously assess how far right they are willing to go to make a realistic run at the White House come 2012.