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The Tea Party

Published:Thursday | March 4, 2010 | 12:00 AM

The United States is a democracy run by an aristocracy. Remember that, and the country's politics starts to make a bit more sense.

Of course, Americans will insist, they overthrew a monarchy. True, but you have to go to Third-World countries to find dynasties as strong as the American ones: after all, we nearly had to put up with the presidency rotating between two families for a generation. And as studies of America's governing class show, a relative handful of American schools fill the governing class, within which ranks the same names tend to recur.

Curiously, for a people who pride themselves on their anti-authoritarian streak, this doesn't seem to trouble ordinary Americans. Popular culture even makes fun of the supposed ignorance of the American 'booboisie', as the satirist H.L. Mencken referred to America's middle classes.

But if Homer Simpson is the iconic caricature of the American voter, he is not without power. American government may not be by or even of the people; but it is ultimately for them. And every once in a while, when they feel that government has grown too remote, they will rise up to discipline it.

All too often, this anger is inchoate and inarticulate. Seldom does it attain power. The Andrew Jacksons of history are rarer than the William Jennings Bryants. But to the extent these upsurges put the ruling class on the defensive, they serve as a reminder that the will of the people cannot be consistently ignored.

The rise of obama

The election of Barack Obama appeared to signal a hopeful variety of this kind of upsurge. The Obama campaign's remarkable mobilisation of millions of ordinary Americans via the Internet, and its clever use of virtual-marketing techniques, hinted at a new dawn of popular political participation.

But after he came to office, confronted with the enormity of the financial crisis, Obama judged that it was best to go with the devil he knew. He selected an economic team that was as establishment with a capital 'e' as one could get. And in the midst of radical change, he opted to shore up the position of the existing economic interests. Bankers caused the crisis. Give them more power, give them more money, and let them try again. That, in any event, was the public perception.

Sure, the country got through the financial crisis. Depression was averted. But unemployment remained high, mortgages were foreclosing, and life savings evaporating. In the face of all this, the Obama economic team fought off any attempts to rein in the bankers.

Outright flaky

A public outcry was inevitable. The lid was blown off, and out came a lot of muck. The Tea Party's rallying cry should perhaps be 'Please listen to what I'm not saying'. Because while their hurt is real, what the self-appointed tribunes of the revolt actually say veers from extreme to outright flaky.

As such, the movement will be difficult to channel. The popular perception is that Tea Partiers will bolster Republicans. Yet, the movement is so multifarious that any attempt to hop on it will feel like a ride on a tiger: once on, you can't get off, and if you let go, you're cat food.

So it's, therefore, difficult to predict what impact the Tea Party will have in this year's elections. Mad as hell, they have put the Democrats on the defensive. But they may well turn their anger on Republicans seen as too compliant with Washington ways. The Tea Party could easily split conservative tickets.

However, the tragedy for the Obama administration is that it is probably too late to repair the damage it did to its image. Like it or not, it's seen as the government of the big man.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank aff'iliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to