After the leaders of three major British political parties concluded the UK’s first-ever televised debate before a handpicked studio audience there was some regret over how yet another vulgar American political practice had corrupted British culture. To the reality show and the “idol” contests was now added the dismal American practice of selecting leaders in a political beauty contest. But that was to miss the point.
Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Gordon Brown could vie with each other to describe how they would spend money they didn’t have because that was still the way the system operated. Within the British political consensus candidates were elected on the basis of who could best tinker at the margins. You didn’t ask more fundamental questions. But in time and with growing economic difficulty the British might import another institution finally making headlines across the Atlantic as the Tea Parties swept across America.
Perhaps the greatest distinction between the Tea Parties and the televised “debates” between candidates is that issues are raised at fundamentally different levels. In the first the money is for the candidate to dispense. In the second it is about how much he has a right to dispense not at the margins but structurally. The psychological difference is captured perfectly by Barack Obama’s response to the Tea Parties. ABC News reported that
Speaking at a Democratic fundraiser tonight, President Obama touted his administration’s tax cuts and said that the recent tea party rallies across the nation have “amused” him.
“You would think they should be saying thank you,” the president said to applause.
Members of the audience shouted, “Thank you.”
‘Thank you for what?’ the Tea Partiers might respond, ‘it is our money.’ The incendiary potential of that type of conversation may explain the heat which has been generated by the crashers and anti-crashers at these events. The Tea Parties are less a debate than political clash. Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit has a number of links to sites which have promised to infiltrate the Tea Parties and efforts repel boarders. It has the aspect of conflict and consequently generates many of the same emotions. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post was nearly beside himself at the sight of these “faux populists”, only recently described as hicks, but now revealed to have Harvard Degrees.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released on Tax Day found that Tea Party activists are wealthier than average (20 percent of their households earn more than $100,000, compared with 14 percent of the general population) and better educated (37 percent have college or postgraduate degrees vs. 25 percent of Americans ).
Milbank should be careful about opening that can of worms lest it lead to a discussion of whether the half of US households who pay Federal Income Tax so it can be transferred to the other half should have any say on how their money is spent. Because the only thing worse than the narrative that Tea Partiers are the ingrates who should be saying “thank you” to the quality that wisely governs them is the reverse: a narrative where the Tea Partiers are the quality who dare to question the ingrates that govern and write about them. Any idea that threatens to invert the positions of the elite and the peasantry is by definition subversive. The real problem with portraying the rebels as well educated and smart is that it begs the question of what their critics are.
Unlike the debate between Clegg, Cameron and Brown the Tea Parties are not about tinkering on a set of givens but they are in part about what the givens should be. Therefore they will be viewed as either attempts to redress system failures or exercises in illegitimacy. The words “November” can therefore be a threat or a promise. Like most opportunities the word is probably both.