First, Leftie commentators ignored the Tea Party: throughout the summer of 2009, its rallies were barely covered except by Fox. Then, as it grew, they sneered at it: what a lamentable gaggle of rednecks, birthers, truthers, stump-toothed Appalachian mountain men and assorted survivalists. When these laughableFrondistesbegan to win primaries, pundits assured each other that they had made Republican Party unelectable. Now, with a week to go before polling day, and the GOP comfortably ahead in the polls, columnists have had to come up with a new line. Predictably, they have hit on the argument that Tea Partiers are a bunch of thickos, dupes being manipulated by powerful Right-wing corporations.
There is a classic of the genre in today’sGuardian. George Monbiot describes the Tea Party as “one of the biggest exercises in false consciousness the world has seen”, and goes on to explain that the poor, deluded saps who turn up to its meetings are puppets on the strings of two wealthy industrialists, Charles and David Koch.
A telling phrase, that, “false consciousness”. It was coined by Friedrich Engels, and became a mainstay of Marxist theory. Marx argued that, because proletarians didn’t always understand their true interests, democracy was open to abuse. Reactionary and bourgeois elements could make the workersthinkthat they wanted one thing, when what they really needed was something else. It was the doctrine of false consciousness which Lenin and, later, Stalin, used to justify their tyranny.
Very few commentators these days consciously long for the return of the USSR. But several cling, Marx-like, to a certain disdain for the electorate: an uneasy sense that, left to themselves, people might vote for lower taxes instead of the kind of eco-correct statism that is in their “real” interest. Lurking behind many of the attacks on the Tea Party is an equivocal attitude to democracy. For the Tea Party is a product of perhaps the most responsive electoral process on Earth:the open primary. In Britain and in Europe, closed candidate selection allows substantial currents of opinion to be excluded altogether from national assemblies. Allow more people a say over who should be their MP and you might have popular anti-tax campaigns springing up all over the place.
The idea that the Tea Party is “Astroturf” (meaning fake grassroots) just won’t wash. The Koch brothers have been funding free market campaigns since the 1970s without ever sparking anything like this. Nor, by the way, is there anything wrong with rich men spending their money on causes rather than on themselves. On the contrary, we ought to celebrate political donations. I contribute in small ways to various campaigns and charities; I’m sure George Monbiot does the same. The only difference between us and the Kochs is one of scale: the Kochs are wealthy, and good luck to them.
No, the Tea Party is that rare beast, a genuinely spontaneous popular movement. Its proximate cause is easily enough discerned: the US federal government is 30 per cent bigger than it was two years ago, a position both main parties would have considered unthinkable as recently as 2007.
Having cast the Tea Party as a deranged rabble, Leftie commentators must explain how these lunatics took over the asylum. Perhaps they should consider the most obvious explanation: that they might not in fact be lunatics.
I have no special brief for the Tea Party. I’m sure that, like all big organisations, it contains its share of cranks. But most Americans regard the proposition that taxation, spending and borrowing have risen too quickly as essentially reasonable. That’s the thing: neither I nor George Monbiot gets to decide what “extreme” is any more. The Internet has broken the old cartels; pundits have lost their powers. We are finally approximating the ideal of government of, by and for the people – and, unsurprisingly, not everyone likes it.
Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.