Tea Party or third party?

By Kate Rowan

In mid-September I arrived in Philadelphia and the first thing I did in my hotel room was turn on the television. I had been vaguely aware that primaries for candidates for the forthcoming midterm elections would be taking place while I was visiting the USA, but the barrage of cutting, personal and sometimes nasty attacks on opposing candidates made me well aware of what was happening.

Despite being in the state of Pennsylvania, as chance would have it I had selected a local news channel from just over the state line in Delaware. This was how I was first introduced to Christine O’Donnell. Since then many bizarre facts about her past, from dabbling in witchcraft to an anti-masturbation campaign aired on MTV in the 1990s, have been revealed to the world. However, before I knew any of that I was confronted by a “message” backed by her rival Republican candidate and former governor of Delaware Mike Castle. A jigsaw of a face was being constructed while a corny-sounding male voice told us “this woman had not paid all her college tuition” and various other revelations about her shoddy financial records including that she spent $20 of her campaign funds on gas for her own personal use. As the voice-over continued, the puzzle revealed the smiling face of a woman and proclaimed “This is Christine O’Donnell!”

Later, not just the local news channel from Delaware but all the major news channels were reporting on the shock victory of O’Donnell over the Republican-establishment-backed Castle. I was informed that this result had been helped by the Tea Party Movement. I knew this was a grass-roots organisation of the more right-leaning Republicans and that Sarah Palin was a key figure.

This group derives its name from the Boston Tea Party protesters who took a stand against British taxes on their tea in 1773 in the build-up to the American War of Independence. The Tea Party movement of today has many causes but one at its heart is the belief that ordinary Americans are being too highly taxed by the Obama administration.

I spoke with Trinity student Alex Towers who found himself in the midst of the Tea Party movement’s “Restoring Honor” rally which took place in Washington, D.C., on the 28 August. There were numerous speakers but the star attractions were Palin and Fox television host and conservative political commentator Glenn Beck. The event was oraganised by Beck and the Special Operations Warriors Foundation (SOWF) which sounds a bit ambiguous but is in fact a charity which supports former special forces troops such as Green Berets and Navy SEALS. Towers explained, “The rally was incredibly well-organised, even the bottles of water that they had for sale had ‘Restoring Honor’ and ‘SOWF’ printed on them”. The proceeds of all merchandise sold went to SOWF.

Continuing in the area of organisation, Towers was surprised by how quickly and smoothly the event passed. “As soon as it was over, it was like everyone just disappeared, it was a bit like flash mob in that way”. As well as watching some of the speeches on big screens the self-proclaimed “news addict” spoke to some of the rally’s attendees and he told me “they came from a very broad spectrum of American society”. Many of these people were in Washington because they were worried about, as one woman from Sioux Falls, South Dakota said, “Spending, tax hikes, the socialization of our healthcare, the atheist direction our country is being taken, the leftist media hijacking”.

Many of the views and values of the Tea Party supporters seem extremely right wing but Towers said: “As worrying as some of the movement is, I think there is a large proportion of relatively normal, decent, hard-working people that are simply ignorant about the workings of government.” As for being against causes such as national healthcare, “they are against taxation as they feel their hard-earned money is being taken from them at a time of great economic depression and being used to fund things they either have no idea about or are inherently against. I really don’t think there is a true malevolence here. Instead, people are drawn to Washington with the vague worry that somewhere, something is terribly wrong.” There has been huge variation in reports of the figures who attended the rally with pro-Tea Party media putting figures at towards a million and others reporting a turn out of 80,000.

However, the character that perhaps we should be worrying about is Beck who, despite having organised the rally and provided all the information to attendees, says he is not the leader. Towers describes him as a “charlatan and opportunist”. Time Magazine recently painted this conservative activist as “the teary-eyed conspiracy- minded Pied Piper”. During my time spent channel-surfing in Philadelphia I happened upon his programme on Fox News. It involved him explaining various conspiracies relating to the current US government and the “liberal media” using a giant chess set and a blackboard. In one way it was comical, but still rather sinister and I think this is where many have concerns about the Tea Party movement. Also some of their particular beliefs about the media and the merits of Fox News are worrying because the media has so much power to shape preferences, particularly in a country as big as the US.

The Republican establishment are feeling the strain as their candidates such as Castle are losing out in almost guerrilla-style campaigns by Tea Party candidates. On the current home page of the Republican Party website there is a large picture of Palin inviting Republicans “to join her” midterm “victory rallies”. This could show that the Republican mainstream is trying to embrace the Tea Party message in an attempt to gain popularity. Yet there are many who see a gulf developing between the centre-right Republican Party and the further right views of the Tea Party. Could this difference in ideologies lead to the birth of a third major political party in the US?