“Up above the world you fly / Like a tea-tray in the sky / Twinkle,
twinkle”‘ ~  Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland

The
Boston Tea Party describes the moment on 16 December 1773 when the Sons
of Liberty, thinly disguised as Native Americans, tipped tons of East
India tea into Boston harbour in protest against
the onerous taxes imposed by their colonial masters. The modern Tea
Party movement that has seized hold of politics in the United States
self-consciously adorns
itself in ideological garb borrowed from that founding event in the
American revolution. But it is impossible to look closely at the
movement without thinking of that other tea party: the surreal feast of
illogicality thrown by the mad hatter in Alice
in Wonderland
.

After all, politicians who in the same
breath recommend closing down whole departments of the federal
government … and propose 18th-century solutions to
21st-century problems are seem both absurd and irresistible. It’s
understandable, then, that reporting of the mid-term elections in
November 2010 has been mesmerised by the Tea Party’s extraordinary rise
and range of characters.

The
conventional wisdom is that President Obama’s administration – now
experiencing a rapid turnover with the departure of some key figures –
has failed to meet the hopes
invested in it. True, it can claim some significant legislative
successes, but these are outweighed by strategic misjudgments (such as
the priority choice to focus on healthcare
rather than fixing the economy). The expected outcome is that the
Democrats will be punished in November by losing control
of the House of Representatives and perhaps even of the Senate (or at
least, in the latter case, of the “super-majority” of sixty that can
enforce cloture); though the president is still given an even chance of
winning a second term in 2012.

The talk of the town

There
is, however, a starker reading of the situation. It goes like this. The
Barack Obama administration is falling apart. The economy remains in
very poor shape. The stock-market has done reasonably well. But the
question is less whether there will be a “double-dip” recession (a
homely ice-cream metaphor whose cold reality would be mass misery) than
why the great majority of Americans are worse off while a small elite is
doing just fine.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy
(continues this version) is a disaster. Hillary Clinton dreams of a
dyarchy with China, which (as the closeness of outright currency/trade
war indicates) sets a new high for naiveté. America is locked into a
policy towards Iran that almost guarantees a humiliating failure. Its
sales of $60 billion-worth of weaponry to Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates may bring profitable contracts for US manufacturers, but
it increases the danger of war in the middle east.

The president
is anxious to get an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but
that outcome now seems very remote. The military withdrawal from Iraq
has required an increase in US combat there; and Afghanistan’s strategy
of military surge combined with the promise of evacuation from 2011
makes no sense at all.

There are other signs of internal
disintegration. The president’s chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, is leaving
to run for mayor of Chicago. His most trusted political guru, David
Axelrod
, is secluding himself to head the re-election effort.
Several other leading officials – among them General Jim
Jones
, national-security adviser; Lawrence
Summers
, economic adviser; Christina
Romer
, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers – are moving on.
True, presidential aides often stay only a short time in the White House
before cashing in that experience in the private sector. But President
Obama may find it hard to recruit aides with the calibre and loyalty he
will need in the stormy times ahead. 

The logic of the second
position is that for the president to minimise the prospective electoral
damage
in November (let alone win re-election) he must define his political
situation anew with ruthless clarity. The Tea Party is not the main
issue. A New York Times/CBS poll
suggests that 18% of voters identify themselves as Tea Party
supporters, and they “tend to be Republican, white, male, married and
older than 45”. By way of comparison, Ross Perot received
19% of the popular vote in 1992, George
Wallace
13.5% in 1968 – and Theodore
Roosevelt
, a former president running as a Third Party candidate,
won 27.4% in 1912 (and became the only outsider ever to come second).

The
promise of the Tea
Party movement
having a significant impact is thus real, yet to
understand what it might be requires a focus not just on the Tea Party
itself but on the demographic groups whose choices in coming elections
will have an even more important effect. 

The downwardly
mobile

The voting destination of two groups in particular
are of intense concern to political strategists. The first is the old
industrial working class, the once unionised factory and service workers
who provided the backbone of Democratic support outside the south from
1932 to 1968. They are the chief victims of the decline of American
manufacturing, the collapse of the automobile industry, and successful
competition from Asian and European manufacturers. Their political mood
in 2010 is anger, in particular over the decision of the George W Bush
and Barack Obama administrations to bail out the banks – but not (except
for Detroit) manufacturing industry. 

The second group is one
that is beginning to attract some attention, though is harder to define
by routine sociological categories. This is the new lower-middle class,
composed of people who saw the promised land of financial security just
within their grasp only to see it floating out of reach with the
economic collapse.

Some bought homes in the distant outer suburbs
of growing conurbations (Los Angeles, the Bay area of San Francisco,
northern Virginia, around Phoenix and Las Vegas, and within a punishing
commuting distance from Houston or Atlanta). They were often the direct
victims of the sub-prime mortgage collapse: attention has focused on the
impact of sub-prime derivatives on financial markets, but the ruthless
selling of variable-rate mortgages in the first place was a disaster for
millions of aspirant American families, many of them African-American
or Hispanic.

Others
were trapped in what were seen, and unscrupulously promoted, as modern
expanding businesses (such as routine IT jobs), only to beached by the
receding tide; or in service jobs in businesses that are no longer
affordable. For them, fear – of unemployment, of negative equity and
foreclosure – is the more prevalent emotion. Few will turn to the Tea
Party.

The last party

Many metropolitan
reporters attend Tea Party events and offer richly textured portraits of
the outlandish beliefs
on display. But they are too often ill-equipped to understand the
political rage that swirls through what the media elite calls the
“flyover states”. Most national commentators, whether right or left,
share a demographic profile and its attitudes with political and
business elites.

Even Barack Obama – Harvard
Law ’91
– revealed a tendency to patronise when he explained
to small-town voters in Pennsylvania when on the campaign trail in
2008: “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to
people who aren’t like them…as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Many media stars – twinkling, as it were, like tea-trays in the
journalistic firmament – have a similar difficulty in understanding
their fellow-citizens. 

Now, Barack Obama and his Republican
opponents alike have to understand those unfamiliar “ordinary folks out
there”. Millionaire journalists, comfortably ensconced in the Upper West
Side of Manhattan or Montgomery county, Maryland, will not be much
help. Republican national politicians and Fox TV news
celebrities may like to think of themselves as gruff tribunes of the
people, while Democratic politicians in the Nancy Pelosi mould and their
journalistic counterparts certainly see themselves as progressives. The
partisans on both sides belong to a select national caste in a society
that has become sharply striated by class.

The twin political
parties, and the journalists who have grown up in symbiosis with them,
barely grasp the alienation of a people who believed viscerally in the
effortless superiority of the American way, and are desperate to make
sense of what – from Detroit
to Kabul – has gone wrong. That, not the retro-nationalist fantasies
of the Tea Party, is what American politics are now about.

The Tea Party
clings to the comfortable nationalism
of the years of American dominance – military, ideological and
economic. The leading politicians and their journalistic sounding-boxes
are familiar enough with the rhetoric of crisis, but less supple in
explaining the great national failures
that are the underlying cause of the country’s interlocking crises.

The
Republicans are even more bereft of leadership than the Democrats, the
Congress even more unpopular than the presidency, politicians in both
houses even more concerned with fundraising than with the state of the
union. In November, the mad-hatters’ tea party will be the least of the
adventures in wonderland. 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters’ Foundation Programme at
Oxford University, and before that the Observer’s correspondent
in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.
Among his books is The
Myth of American Exceptionalism
(Yale University Press, 2009). This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.