At its worst, the American Tea Party is a helter-skelter of conservative populism, a movement broadly united by small-government principles but more animated by a hatred of the current president. It lacks a coherent vision and prefers paranoid sloganeering and anti-establishment platitudes to a viable platform. At its most benign, the Tea Party represents what the late historian Samuel Huntington, in an insight more valuable than his more famous one about a “clash of civilizations,” once termed a “creedal-passion period” of American politics. That is to say, a cyclical phenomenon that occurs every few generations in Anglo-Saxon cultures and has its roots in the Protestant Great Awakening of the 1740s. Creedal passion periods, in other words, are manifestations of American Puritanism, that fatal shore upon which idealistic expectations invariably wash up.
Creedal-passion periods are our homegrown utopianism, but they’re borne of a persistent theme in American politics, one that Huntington diagnosed as an “opposition to power, and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power”. When opposition and suspicion reach a fever pitch because of economic or social transformations – a stock-market crash, a messy foreign entanglement or the integration of a previously marginalised minority – the result is another creedal passion period. Thus should we examine Jacksonian individualism of the 1820s and 30s, as well as the Populist-Progressive convulsions at the turn of the 20th century. The aftermath of these periods were apathy and a return to equilibrium, the humdrum history by which the American experiment is more characteristically judged. There’s every likelihood that the Tea Party movement will peter out in the same way.
The 1960s were Huntington’s case study, the subject to which he devoted his concept-defining 1981 book, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony. In it, he cited the Students for a Democratic Society’s programme that pinpointed the New Left’s origins in “moral values, which are held as absolute”, a startling observation only in light of the moral relativism that wafted in from Europe and took hold of the American left. But from here, the Reagan revolution and its “moral majority” grandstanding can be at least be glimpsed as an approaching corrective, marshalling its energies during the dormancy of the “‘Me’ Decade”.
Even the cultural outcroppings of creedal passion periods bear striking similarities to one another. What communes, hash and free love were to the 60s, heedless market speculation, cocaine and casual sex were to the 80s. Indeed, the area of convergence between the left and right during creedal passion periods is almost too expansive to be noticed in the midst of one. For instance, the failure of the federal government to live up to constitutional principles of individualism and civil liberty meant ending military conscription, a stated goal of the antiwar camp, but one that fell to its conservative nemesis – the Nixon White House – to implement at the state level. (Not that the White House got much credit for it.)
Perhaps because the Tea Party is still in existence, its antagonists have been slow to note its rhetorical and substantive symmetries with the liberal-left’s response to the Bush presidency. (Apologists for the Tea Party who do note these symmetries do so with the straight face of self-justification – irony not being a strong suit of a movement that asks the government to take its “hands off my Medicare”.) The latter trafficked in comparisons of the chief executive with Hitler, conspiracy theories about the furtive “truth” of 9/11, the publication of a novel by a well-regarded author which envisaged Bush’s assassination as being in the public interest and hysterical claims that the United States had, by acts of international folly, forfeited its primacy world affairs. The former traffics in comparisons of the chief executive with Hitler (or Stalin), conspiracy theories about the furtive origins of his birth, delusional pseudo-histories about every American war from the revolutionary to the cold that are designed to serve the Tea Party’s interest, and hysterical claims that the United States has, by acts of international folly, forfeited its primacy in world affairs.
What defenders of the Tea Party have failed to understand is that this movement, like every creedal passion before it, is liable to extinction by its own hand. This is never more so the case than when public curiosity morphs into public wariness and the movement gets defensive. The shooting of an American congresswoman by a man of doubtful mental health may have had nothing to do with the broadcasts of Glenn Beck or the unsuccessful senatorial candidacies of Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle. But the immediate suspicion that it might have, as well as its own rapid-response protests of innocence, are indicators of the Tea Party’s actuarial odds. See also Sarah Palin’s universally derided response to the Tucson shooting complete with an original use of the ancient term “blood libel”.
One already detects the lowering of national blood pressure and hears mutterings about the indecency of dotting any kind of partisan map with rifle sites. Come to think of it, wasn’t it a foreign-born socialist who said that politics enjoys a destructive relationship with the English language?
Humdrum history impends again. If Whittaker Chambers could remark of the sleepy and nostalgic right of the 1950s, which pinned its hope on dismantling the New Deal, that it was a “literary whimsy” masquerading as a politics, then surely the Tea Party is something more ephemeral for these caffeinated and amnesiac times: a Twitter feed in search of an ideology.
Michael Weiss, the executive director of Just Journalism.