Where the Tea Party Runs Out of Juice

The Tea Party's anti-government rhetoric doesn't account for the fact that we need federal jobs to reduce US unemployment

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using a set of emotive historical references,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.

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.

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

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.

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