As radical as they think that they are, the Tea Party follows a pattern of attempts to create a third party in the US political duopoly - which, let's face it, is a one party state with two factions. The constant pressure to put aside "partisan" politics in the interest of the country has meant a system has grown up of horse-trading, pork barrelling, and de-differentiation, which makes the parties increasingly difficult to tell apart. This is apparent in the present crisis where the debt ceiling bill of the Democrats and that of the Republicans only differs in that the Democrats want a longer term solution till after the presidential election (so that their candidate, Obama, won't have to face the debt issue) and the Republicans want a short term solution so that they can use the debt issue on the presidential campaign trail to hammer Obama. There is not a whit of principled difference between the two plans - they both even prescribe the setting up of a bi-partisan committee of twelve in the fall to explore what other cuts they can make. It is entirely about political positioning, precisely the kind of thing that has made Americans cynical about mainstream party politics. And that cynicism creates a pressure for a different kind of party, movement and politician, one based upon principles.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the American ruling class was faced with an unprecedented challenge domestically and internationally. On the one hand, it was the only world power to emerge from the war strengthened, with no war damage to the homeland. It was a leviathan. But it now faced three potential dangers - the possibility of revolution in western Europe, devastated as it was by the war and radicalized by the fight against the Nazis. There was also the massive prestige of the Soviet Union as a result of its herculean battle against the Nazis. It had also finished the war with significant territorial expansion, including the absorption of large chunks of Eastern Europe, along with its factories, agricultural produce and technology. On the home front the Americans faced a renewed labour upsurge and a significant left wing, including the Communist Party USA, which at it's peak had about 75,000 members. The threefold response of the US was the Cold War against the Soviets, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and for the home front, McCarthyism to smash the left while incorporating the non-communist union leadership.
That's a pretty gross oversimplification of a process that ultimately destroyed the base of the left inside the US working class and the likelihood - if not possibility - of any viable third party in US politics for several generations. The lack of an independent working class movement - independent of the Democratic Party, which is a corporate controlled party - meant that when the long post-war boom petered out in the 1970s, the unions were wholly unequipped to deal with the end of the period of cooperation and cooptation. Frankly, the idea of collaboration with the enlightened American bosses of the Democrats is so deeply engrained that the union leadership - and even many union activists - still cling to it in the face of all evidence. The result of the union movement's inability to respond aggressively to the extremely aggressive employer's offensive has seen that unions hollowed out till they have fallen from representing around 30 percent of the working class to about 12 percent today. Amongst industrial workers in the private sector that number falls below 10 percent.
The main effect of this has been to see the lives of American workers get harder, dirtier, and poorer with longer working hours and the Russian Roulette strategy of sustaining their living standards with debt. But the other effect is that there is no alternative counter-weight to the mainstream parties so that when the crises of capitalism inevitably appear, causing misery and heart ache, the first place people tend to look - barring significant and sustained struggles, which we haven't seen in quite some time - to the old standby ideologies.
Anyone who has never been to the United States - and people from the United States who have never gone elsewhere - can't know how profound is the patriotic imagery of every day life in America. All the metaphors and images that surround you are drawn from this well. Flags are everywhere. They have a "Pledge of Allegiance" to the Constitution. To walk in Washington is like walking in Rome to see America's monuments to itself and its greatness. They have carved the faces of several of their presidents into a mountain, Mount Rushmore. This is unique amongst, I believe, all advanced western countries.
The result is that third party attempts, like the Tea Party or Ross Perot's Reform Party before that, tend to believe that the problem is that the two main parties simply aren't American enough. They haven't stayed true to the original vision of America, it's ideals of rugged individualism, hard work, pioneer spirit, entrepreneurialism, Protestant work ethic, etc etc. There is a spartan harshness to it which, in the conservative Reagan years was exemplified well by the "tough love" movement of the time. Kid has a problem at school? Throw him out, make him get a job. Find pot in your kid's drawer? Turn her into the police. Almost inevitably, at the level of politics it resolves it down to: eliminate the debt, cut social spending, get rid of taxes, which is a punishment against those who actually generate wealth and, of course, harsher law and order policies.
In the end, these fake insurgencies are re-absorbed relatively easily once they have served their purpose, which is to provide a right-wing ginger group that gives cover to a more general shift to the right at the level of mainstream politics. Perot's obsession with the deficit made the idea mainstream after the profligate years of Reagan (profligate for the rich, that is) and Bush. We ended up with Bill Clinton who "ended welfare as we know it" and eliminated the deficit for a period. This time the Tea Party has ensured that the debate in the USA isn't about the terrible devastation of the Great Recession or the aftermath, which sees official unemployment at 9%, meaning real unemployment is probably close to double that. The difference this round, however, is that there's a very real chance that the austerity mania of the Tea Party that has been taken up by both parties, will lead to a significant downturn in the already weak economy - reported today to have only grown by 1.3%. It could also lead to a sharpening in class conflict, as it did in Wisconsin this spring. In fact, a fear of that kind of class conflict, and the possibility that it could spread or, heaven forbid, win, is behind the reluctance of Democrats to push too hard on austerity, at least in the early stages of the debate. Obama and Reid have now capitulated completely. But it is that class resistance - a real insurgency - that holds the hope for a different vision. Ultimately for any such class resistance to be successful, it will have to break from the Democrats and the politics of shoddy compromises. That's the road to a third party politics that can actually make a real difference.