THE Tea Party movement in the United States takes some understanding by us Brits. A right-wing populist movement, the Tea Party originated last year, in protest against President Barack Obama’s economic-stimulus and health-care legislation. The name Tea Party combines a reference to the foundation of American identity in the resistance to unfair taxation which was the Boston Tea Party of 1773 with the simple acronym TEA — taxed enough already. Now, 18 per cent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters.
Most of these are traditional Republicans — but they are as much disaffected with the Republican Party as with the Democrats. Despite all his rhetoric about limiting the place of government, President George W. Bush expanded the power of the state. He may have cut some taxes, but he increased public spending significantly.
President Bush wanted things both ways. But, actually, so does the Tea Party. Although it says it wants to cut government spending, it refuses to specify what it would cut. Would it trim the budget for the military, for instance? Most of its supporters remain inscrutable on the subject. Some say they would actually increase military spending.
The US is a place that has always sold itself the myth of superabundance — it is the land of bounty from sea to shining sea. In this super-size culture, where more is always better and achievable, the idea that there may be limit and constraint is hard to stomach. Driving through South Carolina, it is clear that the current economic reality is tough for many ordinary Americans. Many have lost their jobs; house prices remain stagnant; middle-class earnings have flatlined. Superabundance no longer rings true.
Alongside this, many are expressing an anxiety that they are losing their place as the world’s top dog. The instinct for economic protectionism against the economic threat of China is growing steadily. It is remarkable how quickly the US is prepared to abandon its apparent commitment to the free market. Others argue that the Tea Party is really a protest by middle-class white men over 45, who feel their position of dominance in US society is slipping away. It is all about the existence of a black man in the White House.
At times such as this, the US seems remarkably parochial and insular. The Tea Party sums up all that is most defensive about the American psyche. And it feels like no coincidence that the US government has now chosen to warn its citizens about travel in Europe and the threat of an attack from al-Qaeda. It’s little wonder that few people here are prepared to cut military spending. Fear breeds fear.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.