In looking at the recent Tea Party surges in GOP primaries, it increasingly strikes me that there's a desperate nostalgia playing itself out in the country. In some ways, it is an ideology's ferocious last stand, akin to the pied-noir's, and their French nationalist sympathisers', noisy, but ultimately futile, attempts to stop General de Gaulle's disengagement from Algeria a half-century ago. It is an inherently backward-looking movement, using a set of emotive historical references, combined with a sense of impending victimhood, to marshal public support against the policies of a distrusted central government.
It's an expression of longing, in part, for a glorious past, one in which the federal government played a less dominant role in the nation's economy; and for a moment in which markets, by themselves, functioned well enough to keep society on a trajectory of ever-greater affluence.
Clearly, the Tea Party movement is an amalgam. Some sympathisers are classic libertarians. Others are more akin to John Birchers. Some are preoccupied with illegal immigration; some are Christian Fundamentalists; some define their politics by opposition to taxes. Yet, taken as a whole, there's a desire implicit in Tea Partiers' rhetoric for the recreation of simpler times and a rollback not just of current big-government programmes such as the healthcare reform bill, but, more generally, of a century's worth of social legislation, of regulatory systems, of federal taxes that allow for government to function on a grand scale across this continental country, of multiculturalism, multilingualism, large-scale immigration.
In short, this is a cry to roll back the complex web of modernity itself; and, as such, it is more an expression of collective existential angst than a realistic manifesto of political priorities.
But, because of the magnitude of America's economic woes, there's a powerful contradiction in play here. The coalition of interests that has come together under the "Tea Party" banner was made possible largely because of the desperate straits millions of unemployed, and underemployed, Americans find themselves in. In such moments, fringe movements and ideologies defined by a sense of ordinary citizens having been cheated by government institutions, banks, foreigners, crooked fat cats, frequently come to the fore, become "mainstreamed." After all, hungry, homeless, terrified millions tend to grasp for any straws thrown their way.
Such movements' milieu is usually a toxic one; a stew of half-truths, conspiracy theories, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism; and, in the United States, given America's mythology as a place where the little man can always succeed simply by hard work and a little bit of pluck, it is often garnished with a vaguely-defined anti-government'ism.
Yet, were the Tea Party to achieve a real measure of power - which I profoundly hope will not be the case - they would rapidly run up against an unpalatable reality: to retain their high levels of popular support, they would have to deliver economic salvation, and deliver it fast, to America's increasingly precipitously situated working and middle classes. And, with all the anti-government rhetoric in the world, in the current economic moment, there's simply no way to do that by wielding anti-government, anti-regulation axes.
Last month's job report shows the problem here. Across the US economy, over 440,000 jobs were created; but, only 41,000 of those were in the private sector. The rest were dominated by federal jobs, many of them temporary positions associated with the census. According to the latest prognostications of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, even in a best-case scenario America's recovery from the great collapses of 2007 and 2008, will take years to generate enough jobs to replace the 8 million lost since the start of the recession. Quite simply, the private markets don't currently have the juice to return the country to a golden era of prosperity.
And, despite current talk of policies aimed at slashing the federal deficit, discretionary programmes are being cut by only around 5%; and the big ticket items - social security, Medicare, defence spending, national security - are mainly exempt from spending reductions. That contrasts with cuts of 20, 30, in some cases even 50% in revenues taken in by, and consequently in spending carried out by, city, county, and state level governments.
However one crunches the numbers - and regardless of whether federal spending rises or falls slightly in the next few years - given the contours of the current economic crisis, what this means is that at the end of the day an ever-greater percentage of public spending in America is emanating out of DC. And, for the near-future at least, as states continue to hemorrhage revenue, that trend will almost inevitably continue. No other level of government has the borrowing ability, the monetary policy tool-chest, or the confidence of global markets behind it, to keep the fragile economy buoyant. And so, like it or hate it, the federal government is going to have to play a key role in creating programmes to inject money into markets, and to hire workers who would otherwise spend years unemployed, for the foreseeable future.
The Tea Party's growing cadre of general election candidates can bemoan this from here to kingdom come, and the movement's myriad grassroots supporters can continue to fulminate against the federal government; but, at the end of the day, if they become "incumbents" they will have to work out how to govern rather than simply how to craft jeremiads. They will, in other words, have to morph from being angry adolescents to being functional adults within the definitionally complex world of policy-making. And, unless they want to become as loathed as the current batch of incumbents they are laying electoral assault to in states such as Kentucky, Nevada, and South Carolina this political season, they will also have to work out how to use the tools at the federal government's disposal to help get the unemployed back to work in an economic environment in which private markets left to their own devices simply aren't up to the challenge.