Sarah Palin is deservedly the butt of many a good joke. But it's irresponsible to underestimate the qualities that she represents for the American people. This Jane of all Trades (and Master of Populism) gets herself tangled in her words again and again, and the Left stand waiting for her to fall. I've read comments from liberal writers claiming that “we should just let Sarah Palin keep talking [and] Obama will be guaranteed a win at the next election.” Will it be as simple as that?
We need to have a closer look at the Tea Party movement, an unbiased look, in order to understand some of the political structures in the U.S. today. The movement erupted in 2009 as a result of the economic crisis. Right? I'd like to suggest that it's a result of the 1960's. And a result of the failures of the Left.
Although most modern liberals would view the 1960's as a time of breathtaking achievements, it was also the birth of a splintering of ideologies. The New Left of the 1960's turned away from labor unions in favor of a broad-based, anti-establishment crusade for civil rights. The worker was replaced by the student as the new leader in social activism. Minority rights and, after that, women's rights and gay rights (in the 1970's), were accompanied by the birth of modern environmentalism. The workers who organized were replaced by activists who protested. The issues became more controversial. The controversy became more wide-spread. Collectivism was replaced by individualism. And the government, as the father of all establishments, became the enemy.
Ironically, the New Left was extremely opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and saw in it a missed opportunity to turn away from capitalism. Any Post-Depression success the Left had gained in terms of social security was abandoned step by step in favor of libertarian radicalism. This is where liberal ideologies crossed paths with those of the neoliberals. But in bemoaning the failings of government, they neglected to envision new models of social solidarity. Diversification led to fragmentation. And as the Left found themselves targeted in their own controversies, they neglected to develop a proactive plan. Politics became reactionary.
Meanwhile the Right, superficially entangled in leftist controversies, found much freer rein for implementing capitalist ideologies and advancing anti-regulatory trading practices. Fear, although very often a divisive sentiment, empowered the masses to move in one direction: toward freedom. McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Bay of Pigs left Americans terrified. Literature, too, from Orwell's “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” helped solidify fears that any government regulation ultimately leads to a failed socialist state, wherein personal liberties are fully absent. Freedom became the common fertile ground of the Left and the Right. The seeds of the Tea Party movement were planted in this freedom.
In the 1980's the seeds sprouted. Reaganomics was the hot house in which the little saplings thrived. And even under the Democrat Clinton the saplings could begin to bear fruit. Indeed, conditions were good. Clinton passed NAFTA, the economy was good, unemployment was down, fiscal responsibility was on the agenda, there were even fantasies about paying back the public debt. Government wasn't exactly limited, but even welfare was overhauled. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with a cutoff point after five years. A Democrat had torpedoed the welfare system.
But history brought an Autumn upon the land, and the fruit of the saplings fell to the ground in the State of Emergency of 9/11. A new fear of a new loss of freedom crossed the country like the first frost of winter, freezing the fruit where it lay rotten beneath the trees. After a hard winter of wars and recession the sun came out unexpectedly on a January morning in 2009. Change was in the air and a new hope that Obama could bring relief. But winter has never ended in January. And the sunshine proved ill for the trees' branches, which snapped in the ensuing ice storm. The Spring of 2009 brought about the Tea Party movement, yes, but only in terms of revealing what was already there.
But what is the Tea Party really? What are their unifying characteristics? Is it about “Guns, God, and Guts,” as one of my favorite Tea Party slogans states? Or, less comically observed, is it a new form of identity politics? The older, middle-class, white male swinging back on the pendulum of civil rights with one fist in the air screaming, “Don't Tread on Me!” That may indeed play a role, but it's not the whole picture. Unifying characteristics of the Tea Party movement are a fond attachment to concepts like freedom and aversion to big government and over-taxation. At the same time, however, they have no distinctive, systematic fight against all government involvement. Indeed, they are not against certain government action or against taxation in general. They want “less” government and that “less” is arbitrary. Just as arbitrary as the adherence to the Constitution, which is interpreted with varying and sometimes ambivalent degrees of strictness.
The most unifying characteristic of the Tea Party movement is a sense of threat. The threat of a government that takes more than it gives back to its citizens. The threat of an economy out of control, the fear of personal and even national ruin becoming more than just a vague tremor on a sleepless night. The threat of displacement, of a scorching drowning in the melting pot. The threat of bureaucracy run amok, with laws hampering every liberty and encroaching on more than just the ideals of autonomy. The threat of shame, of being belittled by an intellectual elite, of being portrayed as red-neck or backwoods by coastal snobs, of being trapped into failure by ever tightening demands on social behavior. The threat of being voiceless for so long that one can only throw open the window and scream, “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.”
The Tea Party movement is the voice of protest from the Right. And the sense of threat has served to not only unify, but also provide a framework for a common value system. This is solid ground won in the political tug-of-war with the Left. The Left lost their solid ground when they lost their solidarity. They became progressive and focused on issues instead of people, all the while playing the ventriloquist's puppet espousing the capitalist's morality of growth and progress. Each social issue was like a new rope laid across the line and advocates went to tug full force on their policy of choice, abandoning the primary liberal principle of the state insuring a minimal economic and social standard for all. The Left diversified, complicated, fragmented, became riddled with infighting. The Left lost their answer, destroyed their own common value system.
The value system of the Tea Party rests heavily on moral responsibility. Even when their path doesn't always cross with that of the Evangelical Christian's, the sense of moral responsibility is equally dominant. There is the moral fiscal responsibility, the moral adherence to the Constitution, and the morality of the free individual rendering anything more than the most limited of governments redundant and counter-productive. There is the morality of entrepreneurship, of free-trade, of rewards for those who are worthy. There is the morality of nationalism, the nation again taking the dominant role in a common means of identification. And there is the woven system of morality, taken almost one-to-one from the Christians: charity, protection of the weak (at least if the weak are not yet born), traditional family and social structures, and a faith that God is on “our” side.
It is exactly this morality, this structure, this consensus, that speaks to Americans. Americans want change; with good reason. And the change they've gotten with Obama? Well, another favorite Tea Party slogan: “$11 Trillion – Now That's a Lot of Change!” Hope quickly turned to disenchantment for many Americans and Obama's victories became far too often eclipsed by a nebulous mass of doubt. The far Left doubt that Obama is doing enough, see his bipartisan diplomacy as a missed chance. Change? Not the change they had hoped for. The poor and (un-) working classes couldn't see change come fast enough to qualify as real or better their plights. And the political middle and middle-right witnessed the first year of Obama's presidency as if watching the ocean's water level drop and feeling that sickening sensation of remembering that it's a sign for the coming tsunami, before bolting for higher land. “The Audacity of Hope”? Better to return to a more cautious, more reserved plan, even if it means trading in on a little of that hope.
This is the America of the Tea Party movement. This is the America of threatened Citizens, grown up from their virgin naivety. This is the America, willing to overlook the impairments of a Sarah Palin, conscious that she is only a small part of a bigger picture.
The Left is not in the position to ridicule the Tea Party. And in less than two years the Left might not be in much of a position to do anything any more. If Obama fails to win the next election, it will take a very, very long time for the Left to define their solidarity again. It will take a new movement, a movement that remembers how to organize instead of how to demonstrate, how to incorporate instead of how to isolate. This new movement will need a comparable, and well-structured value system; a morality beyond nationalism, beyond religion. A morality built up upon the fundamental liberal principle that no one – no individual and no group – can fall beneath a minimum social and economic standard. No one may be left behind.