The Tea Party has been in the news a lot lately, as it is their influence that's credited for causing the congressional standoff about whether the US should lift its debt ceiling. Indeed, some are blaming it for the subsequent downgrade of the US credit rating, which has led to sharemarket drops around the world, including today in New Zealand.
Many people see the Tea Party as Sarah Palin's fan club, a Republican splinter group of social conservatives. Now it is true that Palin is popular with many in the Tea Party, but it is a more diverse group than many realise.
It's important to realise that the Tea Party was the ultimate in grass-roots activism. It sprang up in city after city with no national structure or leaders. It became more a brand or rallying cry, and even today there's no unified structure to it. What unites them is a belief the government should be smaller and spend less. On all other issues there is no common view.
A New York Times/CBS Poll last year found that 18 per cent of Americans said they identify as a Tea Party supporter. Some other findings:
- 43% of Tea Party supporters have an unfavourable view of the Republican Party.
- Only 40% of Tea Party supporters think Sarah Palin has the ability to be an effective president.
- 57% of Tea Party supporters think gay couples should be able to enter a civil union or marry.
- Only 18% of Tea Party supporters say they always vote Republican.
- 36% of Tea Party supporters identify as Independents, and 5% as Democrats.
Certainly overall Tea Party supporters are more conservative and Republican than the general population, but they are not a small homogeneous group of far-right activists. With 18% support, that is about 50 million Americans who support them.
Personally I think the downgrade is the fault of the big-spending congresses and presidents of the last 30 years. There had to eventually be a reckoning.
Most people's eyes water over at talk of trillion-dollar debts and deficits. One analysis I have seen has broken the US Government down to a household level: if the US Government was a household, it would have income of $58,000 and spending of $75,000 a year; due to years of spending more than it has, the household owes the bank $327,000. One can see how unsustainable this is.
So what is the impact of these massive spending cuts forced on the government by the Tea Party? Well, the household spending was due to increase to $80,000 next year and $82,000 the year after. Now it will only increase to $77,000 and then $79,000.
The United States still has a long way to go to get out of the woods.
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