Giving Back the Tea: The Rhetoric of Small Government in the US

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He is currently lecturing at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 06.11.2010

The rhetoric of US government is the rhetoric of small institutions and Jeffersonian yeomen. As a young United States was getting ready to become a world power with imperial tendencies, Thomas Jefferson warned that big was not necessarily beautiful. He envisaged an American state filled with agricultural sturdiness - the individual made divine on land. In time, even he would recant.

The rhetoric against big government has been the staple of American politics. As presidential candidate and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater said in 1964, 'A government that is big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away.' And did not President Bill Clinton proclaim in 1996 that the age of big governments was over?

The perverse thing about such misguided sentiments is that the government and the operations of the state continues to grow. The welfare state, tattered, confusing and weak in the US, is here to say. Cutting back on the processes of government is the usual placebo to pacify the disaffected. Healthcare is the happy target, because the vulnerable are always hated and the sick regarded with contempt. They, silly beings, can't 'self-stimulate' themselves to greatness in overcoming economic slumps. Besides, the insurance companies hardly want to compete against the government.

So, out of the groves the unhappy came, and voted in these mid-term elections. Obama mania was silenced. Some of the reasons were sound enough. Outrage over the assistance to the banking sector was one that earned points across the political spectrum. The paradox of such anger lies in the fact that less government implies less control. CNBC business commentator Rick Santelli was a new-styled tea party promoter, wishing to dump security derivatives into Lake Michigan (New Yorker, May 3). And there is little doubt that a feeling of providing a helping hand to the thieves was what had happened. That said, it was precisely the refusal to entertain regulations over inventive finance that precipitated the greatest economic slump since the Depression. When government retreats, the market invades.

The GOP has been the greatest of the beneficiaries, wresting the House from the Democrats. In a sense, such losses are not uncommon - the mid-term election is a graveyard for the incumbent party. The Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008 were already spectacular, and bound to be trimmed back. What will worry Democrats is the sheer scale of the losses. The Senate is still in Democrat control, something which will offer a buffer for the Obama administration. What will further comfort them is that such a group as the Tea Party is simply there as a brief reaction, unclear about mandates and even less coherent about policies that might work. Parties of reaction and their voters are partners in gin marriages. Once the gin wears off, the voters shift and sign the divorce papers.

The central government, perceived to be an evil, generates populist movements and flashes in the pan. They come from across the political divide. Tea Party rhetoric is not an exclusive preserve of the Right. The late historian Howard Zinn himself, as pointed out by Jill Lepore (New Yorker, May 3), made use of this resistance stand in 1970 in blocking the road to a Boston army base. Eventually, such movements rarely move beyond that. The Tea Party plays the anti-political line in its politics, adding a mix of conspiracy and dissatisfaction to its platform. 'We are not politicians - we represent you.' The politician, as Orson Welles claimed, is the third sex, and the two other sexes, it might be added, occasionally hate it. Those two eventually relent.

In truth, in an age where managers dictate, tinker and grind, when ideas have a habit of withering before committees and dying in boardrooms, such 'anti-political' representations are nothing short of dishonest. Once these newly minted members arrive in DC, the machine will captivate and control. The abandoned tea shall be returned to its distributors. The stimulus packages will not necessarily cease, though they might be called by another name. Language in Washington is the language of regulated and marketed hypocrisy.

The traditional bugbear remains Washington politics, and it would be missed in its absence. The secret of the republican model of US government remains its principle of nullifying factional forces. A Tea Party government would resemble a lunatic asylum in free fall, which is something that will never happen. The centre, despite that lunacy, will hold. It can, however, become depraved. While this jostling takes place, the US state, still presided over by a Washington political machine, remains bloated and powerful. And the Tea Party-GOP grouping will simply play along.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He is currently lecturing at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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