>The real danger of the Tea Party, by Thomas Hemsley


And so, a campaign is catapulted in to the history books. Christine O’Donnell is the Republican candidate for the US Senate seat once held by Vice President Joe Biden. Now, you might think, this is not prime Republican territory. Delaware isn’t Kansas. That is, to an extent, true. Biden won his last Senate race with 64% of the vote (against, as it happens, Ms. O’Donnell), while also running for Vice-President. President Obama won the state with 61% of the vote. Yet, the truth is the Republican party had, until September 14th, a very good chance of winning this state. Mike Castle, Delaware’s only Congressman, was a highly popular moderate who seemed to have the Senate race locked up. He had been Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and was well on the way to becoming the next Senator for Delaware. That was until the Tea Party got involved.

The Tea Party, as a phenomenon, started in 2009. The origins are not exactly clear – although libertarianism has long been pursued by a vocal minority in the United States – but the ideology is. Tea Party supporters favour smaller government – less spending, and lower taxes – to a significant degree. They are also firmly against what they perceive as the elitism of President Obama, Congressional Democrats, and in some cases establishment Republicans. The movement built, and establishment candidate after establishment candidate fell in Republican primaries. Nevada, Kentucky, Utah, Colorado, Alaska, Wisconsin, New York, Maine, and of course Delaware. In each one of these states, the candidate supported by the party establishment fell to a candidate supported by what the media dubbed the ‘Tea Party movement’. It was a fascinating process. It seemed unstoppable. Tea Party campaigns had the backing of some of the best known and most influential Republicans, including former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Glenn Beck, the iconic and conspiracy-theory promoting Fox News chat show host, cheered them on with aplomb, even holding rallies attended by many Tea Party supporters.

They brought down some long serving office holders, including two incumbent Senators. Yet, as the movement brought great success, it also brought some candidates whose views were on the very extreme wing of American political thought. Sharron Angle, Senate candidate in Nevada, has called for ‘Second Amendment remedies’ to the Obama administration. Ron Johnson, Senate candidate in Wisconsin, has argued that climate change is due to ‘sunspots’, and Joe Miller, Senate candidate in Alaska (who defeated an incumbent Senator), argues that the minimum wage is unconstitutional. Added to Christine O’Donnell’s fabled predilection for witchcraft, these seem to be a thoroughly unsuitable group of candidates for elected office.

But ah, you may say. They won’t win.

It is true that O’Donnell has almost no way of winning. She lags in polls by an average of 18 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.

But many other Tea Party candidates have a real chance of winning. In Florida and Utah, Tea Party candidates lead by a substantial margin. Ron Johnson has built a small lead in Wisconsin. In Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine and Nevada, the Republican candidates are tied with their nearest opponents. It is entirely possible that, on November 2nd, voters could go to the polls and elect as many as 7 tea party Senators, a number of Governors (such as in Maine), and dozens of Congressmen. Democrats have been improving their chances of late, but the fact remains that it is a distinct possibility that many voters will opt for the Republican candidate, thus electing Tea Partiers to national and statewide office.

This represents a dangerous juncture in US politics.

Over the past few decades there has already been an increasing ideological purity in US elected office. The Republican Party, the party which contained such great men and women as Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith, has mainly been the victim of this increasing purity. Liberal Republicans, such as Lincoln Chafee, Jim Jeffords and Jim Leach, have left. Others, like Olympia Snowe, look thoroughly endangered (some, such as Christine Todd Whitman and Colin Powell, have retired). It is very difficult to be a moderate or liberal Republican in the United States today. The trend is also increasingly true in the Democratic party, despite Bill Clinton’s New Democrat Coalition in the 90s. Conservative and moderate Democrats, such as Evan Bayh, are sadly retiring, fed up with politics. Others are chased out of the party, as Blanche Lincoln nearly was, and she is unlikely to win in November anyway. The United States is increasingly reaching a point where there is no sensible middle, where there is no way of reaching a consensus across parties.

John Adams once described Tom Paine as being able to pull down a house but not being able to rebuild it. This founding father, a group of people whom the Tea Party constantly refer to in laudatory tones, was someone who throughout his career ended up reaching compromise, both when Ambassador in the Continental Congress, and during his Presidency. It seems to me that he would also, keenly, describe the Tea Party in a similar way. They can pull down the house but they have no plan to rebuild. At a time when America has so many grave problems, this is the most dangerous thing of all.


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