WASHINGTON – Tea anybody? Well, it depends. Clearly some people like the basic, mildly insurrectionist, “too much Government”, ideas of the colorful Tea Party People. Still, I would not bet on the power of this grassroots movement to radically transform, as opposed to influencing, the future political agenda. Its focus on private sector growth, on restraining Government size and the associated mountain of debt, while it is basically sound, is still too narrow to allow this movement to become a full fledged political force and/or a third party. Its constituency of mostly middle aged, white people is not broad enough to morph at any time into a national force.
Tea Party Movement: Influential where it matters
However, this does not mean that the Tea Party people are irrelevant. In fact, just the opposite. Given the funny mechanics and arithmetic of America’s politics in which primaries are key contests where very few eligible voters actually participate, even modest numbers of determined activists, (such as the local Tea Party Chapter), can bring about huge, unexpected upsets. So, the Tea Party Movement, scattered and somewhat chaotic as it may be, can still be a very powerful factor in individual races, scaring candidates who are too left leaning and favoring those who may have more agreeable fiscally conservative credentials.
The fit with Sarah Palin
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, self-defined conservative outsider and key note speaker at the recent national Tea Party gathering in Nashville seems to be a natural fit for the Movement. This fit, however, reinforces my doubts as to the eventual viability of this movement as a broad based national force. Sarah Palin may very well be very popular within a white, Middle America energized by home spun basic values of hard work, self reliance and faith in God. But beyond this natural constituency, she does not enjoy much favor. And this constituency, while large enough to lift her political popularity, may not be sufficient to propel anybody to national office.
What about the rest of America?
Indeed, America now includes many more and may be even larger and broader constituencies. These include mostly urban, unionized, blue collar workers, civil servants, teachers and the diverse (and growing) ethnic constituencies. In some sense, these are the Tea Party People “political enemies”. These are the constituencies and the pressure groups that instinctively believe in public sector driven, “Big Government”, solutions to their problems. They want more government jobs, more welfare, more aid, more public assistance, bigger pensions, subsidies and the like. Given the existing and projected demographics, I very much doubt that the Tea Party People, beyond their current moment in the limelight, can broaden their appeal, and convincingly sway the whole country, causing a radical political transformation towards another Ronald Reagan-like era of Small Government and Deregulation. Nonetheless, this movement is still broad enough and pugnacious enough not to be ignored. As it has appeal among so many independents, it should not be dismissed. Ultimately, while it may not be big enough to win the final ideological battle, this Movement may force a stalemate and a negotiated truce that would at least place serious limitations on any agenda that would cause further Government growth.
Listen to the message
Everybody should listen, even the Democratic Party. While the Democrats are traditionally –and now more than ever– the defenders of the weak and instinctively inclined to design programs aimed at correcting social injustice and inequality funded via public spending, they would be very unwise to dismiss the Tea Party People as retrograde unreconstructed semi-rural, backward looking folklore. These usually unaffiliated citizens are now very likely to vote and their anti-Government mood can be decisive in determining outcomes in swing states.
The debate about “Limited Government” is still alive in the US
But, beyond its impact on elections, is there more? Yes, we should take notice of the Tea Party People because this spontaneous uprising against Big Government is another reminder of the resilience in America of the old fashioned XIX Century Liberal concept of “Limited Government”. “Limited Government” used to be an important tenet, in fact almost an ideological cornerstone in all western democracies.
In Europe it is different
However, in Europe, except for the all too brief Margaret Thatcher 1980s “counterrevolution”, with its unrepentant frontal assault on Government run anything and the very powerful Trade Unions, the “Limited Government Model” is as good as dead. Europe is terminally wedded to more or less enhanced (and costly) versions of the welfare state. But in America, witness the Tea Party Movement, grown –let us keep in mind– outside of conventional conservative institutions, the issue is not entirely settled. There is still some measure of instinctive skepticism vis-à-vis Big Government solutions to anything.
Exit Senator Evan Bayh
And this skepticism goes beyond colorful movements. The recent announcement by Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana that, high personal popularity notwithstanding, he does not intend to stand for re-election this November should be regarded by Democratic Party strategists as the proverbial canary in the mine. And this is because Bayh is a sober, fiscally conservative, centrist who concluded that it is impossible to get anything worthwhile done in Washington. And who holds almost absolute power in Washington? His own party, the Democrats.
Republicans are causing gridlock
Now, true enough, much of the responsibility for political gridlock in Washington can be assigned to the “NO, no, no, no…..no to anything” Republicans. Far from behaving as the loyal opposition, the Republicans have decided that complete obstructionism and guerrilla warfare, down to using all sorts of parliamentary procedures and assorted gimmicks to block the confirmation of scores of would be members of the Obama executive, is the way to go. Banking on the perceived growing opposition to the Democrats’ agenda, most Congressional Republicans believe that a scorched earth approach is the most constructive political proposal they can come up with. And this is bad and truly disappointing; because the country needs a credible political alternative. Hard to see one emerging from this attitude of opportunistic, negative posturing.
However, it is also a fact that the Democrats are in power controlling everything: the White House, the House and the Senate –with huge majorities. While he did not publicly say so, it is quite possible that a mild mannered, fiscally conservative centrist like Evan Bayh does not feel at home within a group of Democratic law makers whose agenda is more left leaning than he can bear. In his political farewell speech, Bayh pointed out that he had enjoyed a very constructive relationship with the other Senator from Indiana, the Republican Richard Lugar. Now, it so happens that Lugar is the mirror image of Bayh in the Republican Party. He is also a mild mannered, soft spoken centrist. The real message here is: centrist Democrats and Republicans (and, I would add, millions of independents) could agree on a Government agenda in which we prioritize private sector led growth; with Government intent on investing in national defense, some key infrastructure, basic research generally not pursued by the private sector and a limited welfare state, all prudently funded keeping in mind current and future fiscal solvency.
Any connection between moderate Democrats and the Tea Party people?
So, what’s the connection between Senator Bayh’ imminent retirement and the Tea Party emergence? Ostensibly none. But there may be some. The Tea Party people and Bayh’s political philosophy reveal an aspiration to a model that is either in the center (Senator Bayh), or center right (Tea Party). Notwithstanding the immaturity and disappointing leadership provided by the current Republican opposition, there are noticeable signs indicating that in America there is a substantial “center” that favors “Limited Government”.
The “Limited Government” debate is still not settled
While a full fledged welfare state that absorbs most of the national wealth (in the meantime substantially reducing the amount of capital available for future growth) may reflect an agreed upon political and social consensus in Europe, in America this issue has not been settled –not yet, at least. When we hear cries of alarm against unsustainable, run away deficits coming from both the Tea Party crowd and moderate Democrat Evan Bayh, we should listen, as this is an indication that different constituencies in America still believe that this country’s focus should be on private sector led growth, rather than fiscally unwise Big Government Programs.
Free market capitalism out of favor
True, given the catastrophic debacle of 2008-2009, the once vibrant (and somewhat hubristic) private sector philosophy is now limping, as the actions of many of its self-anointed practitioners have led many to believe that private entrepreneurs and financial gangsters are one and the same. But they are not. Private enterprise thrives within a rules based system that provides genuine opportunity to the largest numbers of would be players. To note that the rules were not upheld –in a massive way and with catastrophic results– does not mean that private enterprise is conceptually bankrupt. Just as we can say with Winston Churchill that democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others; as imperfect and accident prone as free market capitalism may be, so far we have not managed to find anything better.
Americans for Limited Government?
The Tea Party People and colorful populist Sarah Palin give us a piece of this message. Senator Evan Bayh provides another modulation of the same theme. And I suspect that most Americans, deep down, share the same aspirations for a country in which the private sector creates wealth, while Government, entrusted with the provision of basic services, enables growth, rather than stifling it.