Tea Party conservatives are brewing up a storm

It was hardly needed, but the Tea Party confirmed this week it’s a big deal in American politics. It’s a big deal for conservative politics internationally. New technology is giving conservative activists the power to form the sort of genuine grassroots movements the left has been for decades.

On Tuesday, the Tea Party scored a huge win when Christine O’Donnell beat Mike Castle in a Republican Senate primary in Delaware. Castle is the embodiment of an establishment Republican. He’s enjoyed a nine-term run in the House of Representatives. He was Delaware’s governor for seven years. He’s a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Ben Franklin. He’s very, very moderate.

He lost to the deeply conservative Christine O’Donnell, who carried a Sarah Palin endorsement. Defeating Castle scored her one of the biggest victories of the Tea Party so far.

Few overseas political movements are less clearly understood in Australia than the Tea Party. That’s no surprise. Sometimes not even the Tea Party is entirely sure what it stands for.

Take a questionnaire for Republican and independent candidates, written by a small, obscure Tea Party group in Erie County, Ohio. They call themselves the Freedom Institute. To get its approval you must believe marriage is solely between a man and a woman, gays should be kept out of the military, tariffs should be increased, the Federal Reserve should be abolished, and ”the regulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere should be left to God and not government”.

The Freedom Institute wants tax cuts and government workers to be exposed to ”the free-market system”. But they also want to impose trade barriers to keep jobs in the country. They want their politicians to be conservatives, but populist conservatives with some eccentric and jumbled views.

But compare the Freedom Institute’s list with a similar one supported by FreedomWorks, a large non-profit organisation with headquarters in Washington. They sum up the Tea Party’s central tenets as: start fundamental tax reform, stop the tax hikes, end runaway government spending, and protect the constitution. In other words, limited government, low taxes, and an end to government waste.

Few of those policy positions would be opposed by conservative, small-government Republicans. In Australia, they’d easily recognised as free-market liberalism. But for the international press, the Erie County list is far more interesting. The revolt against the Republican establishment is as much a revolt against big spending, big taxing George Bush as it is against the Obama administration.

Bush’s Republican administration instigated the rolling program of Wall Street bailouts which have plunged the US into debt. The US government deficit this year will be $1.3 trillion. That’s larger than our entire economy.

A Bloomberg poll found overwhelmingly the thread which ties the Tea Party together is a belief the US has lost its way in the past few years. Eighty per cent agreed the recent expansion of government was a threat to liberty.

A CBS/New York Times poll found Tea Party supporters tend to be more educated than the general public. And they’re not bad judges of character. The majority believe Sarah Palin is unqualified for the presidency. Bear that in mind when you next hear the Tea Party dismissed as a crazy fringe.

The political class isn’t sure what to make of the Tea Party. It comes from outside the polished environs of Washington. Few members have been involved in politics before.

They’re all simply plugged into networks of blogs and mailing lists. That makes the Tea Party sometimes confused, often naive, and easily led astray. It also makes its members powerful.

In Australia, we just saw how potent a conservative grassroots can be. The implosion of the parliamentary Liberal Party late last year over climate change was driven by a membership which saw Malcolm Turnbull’s support of the emissions trading scheme as unacceptable.

Thousands of emails were sent by party members and others calling for the position to change. In the end, they had to change leaders. Hopes for bipartisan climate action disappeared, and Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership died in the Liberal party room. A conservative grassroots destroyed a Labor prime minister.

Compare the attention that movement got to the praise heaped upon the even tiniest left-wing movement. Poor old GetUp! wishes it was half as effective as the Liberal membership last November.

Technological change has given conservative popular movements the power to challenge their establishment in the same way left-wing movements have for half a century. That’s the real story of the Tea Party.

It may get sucked into the Republican mainstream. Or its candidates may fail at election time. But the Tea Party isn’t wrong. America has serious problems. Those problems have energised the conservative base.