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The Tea Party is a waning force

Some of the problems that fuelled the right-wing, grass-roots movement in the US are true of Britain

It didn't seem all that different from an English village fete - hay bales, a few costumes, a local band strumming away - until you listened as well as looked. The words of the song, for instance: "Some people steal, they cheat and lie/ But don't they know, on the judgement day,/ The gold and silver will melt away . . ."

Or the conversation (prompted by me) between two glamorous mothers in jeans on the party stall who were handing out "USA" teddy bears and Tea Party colouring books to the children (word search: "cap and trade") and US constitutions to the adults.

“How do you feel about abortion?"
“I don't think it should happen in any way, shape or form."
“If a mother's life is in danger?"

Venus was wearing basketball boots, jeans and a tiny, silver badge of a baby's feet. "These are the feet of a ten-week-old foetus," she explained. "Actual size." Her friend Julie, wearing a diamanté pink trilby and cowboy boots, asked me if I had ever spoken to a nurse who works in an abortion clinic. She leaned towards me: "Some of those babies are born crying."

American nightmare

This was a Tea Party "get out the vote" rally in Bellville, Texas, which has a population of 4,000 and about a dozen churches. The city's slogan: "Where small-town living is a way of life. Cowboys are still cowboys and children can still be children." I wanted to see what the Tea Party was like in small-town America. Could I come along?

The email from Venus was effusive. "Absolutely! We want everyone to attend, enjoy our freedom and understand the importance and duty of voting and participating in our government. 'Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty' - Thomas Jefferson."

My impression was that whatever you have read about the Tea Party - the mix of home style and brimstone, the conflation of religion with politics, of patriotism with the traditional family and low taxes - was not exaggerated. Listen to Wade Cashion, a young pastor in neat, tight trousers, addressing a crowd of 150 people in the town square drinking coffee or water and munching on apple pie and ice cream. "As long as sin is present in this world, there will always be self-seeking, greedy liars." A passing freight train honked in the warm evening. "We have fallen into the bondage of government due to the bondage of sin, which all of us are in. I fear to God what the coming years will hold for my son. Father, we pray for the future of this country. We want to be free . . ."

The audience - mostly middle-aged and older but with a smattering of teenagers and kids - cheered. The Bellville Tea Party started out as
a ladies' book club called Leap (Ladies Embracing American Principles), attended by "wives, mothers and grandmothers". Their first book was The 5,000-Year Leap by W Cleon Skousen, a conservative, religious political theorist, asserting the moral roots of the United States.

So, I asked Venus, why now? "After the election, people were hopeful that the country would move in a good direction, economically and morally. We're morally challenged. We've got kids who don't have morals; they don't have full-time parents; they watch things on TV. It's just been really sad - it's been a moral decay. We had such tragedy with 9/11 . . . We've been morally bankrupt; we've been in a war. In September 2008, we obviously started seeing some financial pitfalls." Venus's list was a litany of threats to the American dream.

Surprisingly, Venus, a conservative, had hoped that Barack Obama might fix all of this. "It was a historic election. There were a lot of people who were very upbeat and we were thinking: 'OK, we're going to give this guy a chance. We need to turn things around economically and we need people to feel good about this country.' We now know that wasn't going to happen - things are worse, people are still morally bankrupt, people are dejected."

Bill of health

The health-care bill and the back-room deals that enabled it seem to have been the last straw. "We hate it," she said. "Everyone is nostalgic for the days when there was less regulation. It's going to be outrageously expensive. It's going to bankrupt us." She asked whether it was true that, in the UK, there are no upfront charges for health care and looked astonished when I confirmed it. "Don't taxes keep going up to pay for it?" A little, I said. Did we have anything like a Tea Party in England? No, I said, because people are happy with services such as the state health-care system, which takes care of their children. "You see, it's a bribe," she ruminated.

Justice Felipe Reyna got up to speak. The judge flunked first grade, was spanked for speaking Spanish (one of the mums started clapping, then caught herself) and worked his way up from janitor in the court of appeals to judge. "The liberal media say the Tea Party are a bunch of racists and members of the KKK." A man in a baseball cap grinned at his friend: "Ha, that's terrible!"

By now, there were only about 50 people watching; the appeal of this Tea Party rally was waning, as the appeal of the Tea Party itself seems to be. On 24 October, the Washington Post published results of a survey showing that the thousands of local groups affiliated to Tea Party Patriots, the grass-roots umbrella organisation, have dwindled to 647.

Some of the circumstances that fuelled the Tea Party in the US are recognisable in Britain: a feeling of rupture between people and politics, weariness with political corruption, concern about the social consequences of permissiveness and the economic fallout of globalisation. The rest, as the crowd stood to swear allegiance to the flag, struck me as being as foreign as those freight trains, honking in the night.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided