David Coates

Tea Party Time on both sides of the Atlantic



There is always a complex but close relationship between economic conditions and political options, such that the understanding of one invariably requires an understanding of the other. That is particularly true in periods of sharp economic or political change of the kind we have known since 2008. The decision by the MP, Douglas Carswell, to transfer his political loyalty from the Conservative Party to UKIP triggered the following set of thoughts about present and future interactions between economics and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.


On the economic side of the equation, as is now widely understood, people in both the UK and the US still live under the shadow of the great recession of 2008-9. The credit crisis of September 2008 which triggered that recession was not a normal moment in modern economic history. On the contrary, it changed everything. It brought to an abrupt end nearly two decades of sustained economic growth, and in doing so, it completely blocked the continuation of the balancing act between demand and supply that had brought generalized prosperity to an entire generation of workers in each economy. It also left a lot of people struggling economically simply to survive.

There were people struggling before, of course. Capitalism and poverty always go together; but post-2008 the numbers and proportion of the population experiencing daily pressure on their budgets increased dramatically.[1] Jobs were no longer plentiful. Part-time employment, even self-employment, on low/subsistence wages became commonplace.[2] Semi-skilled workers who a generation before had left school and found good paying jobs in readily-available manufacturing plants suddenly found those jobs in short supply, and their equivalents in the service sector – if there at all – significantly less well paid.[3] The burden of that unexpected adjustment fell particularly on the young as the unspoken deal, which they spent their teenage years expecting to be theirs for the taking in their young adulthood, suddenly evaporated before their eyes. In the United States, for example, instead of guaranteed employment, a high-school diploma brought for many only systematic exclusion from the paid labor force.[4] Instead of high-paying jobs, four years at college for many middle-class children brought them only record levels of student debt.[5] And instead of living independently and even buying a first property, even many of the more privileged children of the late baby boomers often found themselves as academically qualified as their parents but still living at home![6]

The financial crisis and its aftermath left, that is, a working class in or on the edge of poverty; a middle class economically squeezed as it had not been in living memory; and an entire generation of millennials facing a lower rate of social mobility than their grandparents enjoyed in 1970, and a lower rate of house purchase than any time since the 1970s. Politics could not be “business as usual” in the wake of so sharp a break with previous experience and expectations; and contemporary politics in both Washington and London these days is not “business as usual.” Amid the existing array of familiar political faces and options, new political forces are in play whose significance and potential need now to be understood.


When the assumptions of a whole generation are thrown into question in this fashion, it is only to be expected that the politics of that generation should also begin to change. Yet what is intriguing in our present circumstances is how modest those changes have thus far proved to be amongst the particularly deprived and exploited in both economies, and how little traction the recession has given the Democratic Left among its traditional constituencies. It is as though being poor – and particularly poor and black – in both the US and the UK is so deeply entrenched in the way the economies and societies function that not even an intensification of that poverty can do more than trigger an occasional outburst of urban rioting of the kind witnessed in parts of London in 2011 and in Missouri in 2014.[7] And it is though the bulk of American labor has given up even the fight to join a trade union, let alone to use it for progressive political purposes. At least low-paid American retail workers are in revolt, but even they stand so often isolated and alone.

What is also intriguing is how, so far at least, the millennial generation have stayed off the streets. Some of them were there briefly in the “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations, but in the main millennials seem too overwhelmed by the daily struggle to find work, wages and even a career to do more than vote with their feet, staying away from a mainstream politics that offers them nothing immediate to ease their conditions.[8] Where the politics have changed, and where unexpectedly a right-wing populism has established deep roots in both political systems, is among white adults – the bulk of whom are now already middle-aged or older. Right now we are seeing the coming together of a white working class that feels threatened by labor market competition from the next generation of immigrants, and a white lower middle class struggling to avoid slipping back into the ranks of the nearly poor. Angry white men seem particularly significant participants in all of this:[9] sustaining a profound Tea Party challenge to main-stream Republicans in the United States, and enabling UKIP to win a larger percentage of the popular vote than did any of the other three main political parties contesting the UK’s European elections in May.

The demographics of the Tea Party movement in the United States and of UKIP are, in this sense, remarkably similar. Typical Tea Party activists “are overwhelmingly older, white, conservative men and women who fear that ‘their country’ is about to be lost to mass immigration and new extensions of taxpayer-funded social programs…for low- to moderate-income working-aged people, many of whom are black or brown.”[10] The UKIP equivalent is “blue-collar, old, white, male, with few qualifications and a very pessimistic economic outlook,”[11] with UKIP best described as “a first home for angry and disaffected working-class Britons of all political backgrounds, who have lost faith in a political system that ceased to represent them long ago.”[12] The two political movements are not identical, of course. Each is a product of its own place and time. Tea Party politics is infused with a Protestant evangelical social conservatism that UKIP broadly lacks, and by strands of libertarianism[13] which have no real purchase in more social-democratic Britain. And by the same token, UKIP is particularly engaged with issues of immigration from, and political subordination to, the European Union, which parallel but do not exactly match Tea Party anger at illegal immigration across the US-Mexican border.

But both political formations share an anger at the present impasse, a strong conviction that the existing political parties cannot break that impasse, and a determination to do so themselves by rolling back the welfare state and freeing their members from the existing burden of taxation. Though the different candidate selection systems in the two democracies allow the Tea Party to colonize the Republican Party in a way that UKIP can never hope to replicate inside the British Conservative Party, both are potent forces pulling their national politics to the right: collectively constituting for the modern era what Trotsky, long ago when talking of interwar fascism, called a “levée en masse of the petty bourgeoisie.”


It is not immediately obvious yet just how permanent a presence in UK political life UKIP will prove to be. But what may determine its long-term potency and presence of UKIP is whether a millennial generation thus far so ill-served by mainstream parties also proves open to its appeal. And in that sense, mainstream parties on both sides of the Atlantic hold their – and indeed, our – future in their hands. Stopping the spread of support for rightwing populism requires more from them than simply refuting Tea Party and UKIP claims on immigration, important though that refutation will be. It also requires the design and implementation of a new economic growth strategy that can bring jobs and prosperity back to an entire generation. So as we go to vote next time, it will be worth asking all the candidates just what elements, in their view, such a growth strategy should contain. For rather more hangs on the quality of their answers than simply the outcome of one general election. What hangs on the quality of their answers could well be the outcome of many elections to come.


First published on the blog site of the British Politics Group of the APSA

[1] Don Lee, ‘Fed survey: 40% of households show signs of financial stress,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2014: available at http://www.latimes.com/business/jobs/la-fi-financial-stress-20140807-story.html


[2] Will Hutton, “George Osborne’s economic ‘recovery is built on sand,” The Observer, January 26, 2014: available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/26/george-osborne-economic-recovery-jogs-growth-self-employment


[3] A wage gap representing $93 billion in lost wages since the recession. For details see the press release of the United States Conference of Mayors, Wage Gap Widens From Recession As Income Inequality Grows, August 11, 2014: available at http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/wage-gap-widens-from-recession-as-income-inequality-grows-270748771.html


[4] See Pew Research, The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, Published February 11, 2014: available at http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/


[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/20/student-debt-distress_n_5682736.html


[6] Matt O’Brien, “It’s not your imagination: millennials really are living in their parents’ basement,” The Washington Post July 11, 2014: available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/07/11/its-not-your-imagination-millennials-really-are-living-in-their-parents-basement/


[7] Tim Newburn, “The Ferguson riots may seem similar to those in the UK – but there are stark contrasts,” The Guardian, August 21, 2014: available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/20/ferguson-missouri-not-so-far-from-tottenham-toxteth


[8] There is also a strong libertarian current among millennials. On this, see Robert P. Jones et al, In Search of Libertarians in America, Washington DC: Public Religion Research Institute, October 2013, available at http://publicreligion.org/research/2013/10/2013-american-values-survey/


[9] See Frank Schaeffer, America’s White Male Problem, posted on Alternet.org, January 7, 2013: available at http://www.alternet.org/americas-white-male-problem. Also Thomas Magstadt, Angry White Guys: The Roots of Reactionary America, posted on NationofChange April 14, 2013: available at http://www.nationofchange.org/angry-white-guys-roots-reactionary-america-1365861843; and Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, New York: Nation Books, 2013.


[10] Theda Skocpol, “Why the Tea Party’s Hold Persists,” Democracy Journal, Winter 2014, p. 11: available at http://www.democracyjournal.org/31/why-the-tea-partys-hold-persists.php. See also Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of American Conservatism. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 25-32.


[11] Robert Ford & Matthew Goodwin, “Why UKIP and the radical right matter for progressives,” Policy Network, April 10, 2014; available at http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=4620&title=Why-UKIP-and-the-radical-right-matter-for-progressives


[12] Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain. London: Routledge, 2014, p. 270. The full social profile of UKIP supporters is at pages 152-62. Available at http://www.amazon.com/Revolt-Right-Explaining-Extremism-Democracy/dp/0415661501


[13] On this, see Edward Luce, “The tide is rising for America’s libertarians,” Financial Times, January 12, 2014: available at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/cc9a31b8-7928-11e3-b381-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3Ax5DjEgU


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

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