Opinion: Welcome to Tea Party

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IDI Senior Fellow, Prof. Tamar Hermann, discusses the implications of the growing Tea Party movement in the United States on democracies around the world.

Tea, and mostly tea parties, is a fundamental term in America's political culture. As we know, this was the name given to the famous protest at the Boston Harbor in 1773. This "party," which eventually led to American independence, gave rise to the well-known democratic slogan: "No taxation without representation."

However, today's "tea parties" organized across the United States by the Tea Party Movement are not yet another classical democratic form of protest, as suggested by their name, as they are taking place at a time where an elected and representative Administration is in place.

Hence, the protestors enjoy representation by law, even if their representatives are not precisely to their liking and the Administration's policy does not satisfy them.

Some view the Tea Party Movement as a healthy popular response to the Obama Administration's effort to salvage Wall Street in the wake of the great collapse of 2009. Yet the less comfortable truth is that the regular mass protests held by this movement express a failure to recognize the legitimacy of the elected Administration and of President Obama.

The protestors, most of them white males from the middle class and holding a conservative worldview closer to that of the Republican Party—which rushed to embrace the new popular movement—do not live at peace with the Administration's declared intention to expand the State's involvement in the free market economy and to earmark funds, mostly to come from taxes, in order to improve and expand services such as healthcare.

On top of this we see resistance, which also has deep roots in America's political culture, to American military intervention across the world and mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tsunami waves

Although many components in the Obama Administration's policy, which the tea party participants protest against, mark the direct continuation of President George W. Bush's policies, the protestors are united by a sense that the White House was "hijacked" in the last elections by a group headed by a black president who has an interest in taking care of poor and non-white population groups that voted for him en mass, shape an expensive policy on their behalf, and present the bill—in the form of high taxes—to the white middle class.

Should Israelis show interest in the rise of the new movement, which has drawn hundreds of thousands if not millions of people and is covering increasing parts of the field of vision of American decision makers? The enhancement of the movement can certainly prompt the Administration to take a step back in respect to its involvement in the Middle East conflict. Israelis who would be glad to see the white House do so should keep in mind that the growing popular demand to minimize US foreign involvement will apparently also include a demand to cut back the US aid to Israel.

However, an even more important conclusion can be found in respect to the relationship between the government and citizens. If in the past most of political protests came from small radical camps with a high level of political awareness and little political power, the deepening confidence crisis worldwide, including in Israel, draws citizens who on regular days would unpleasantly shudder at the thought of hitting the streets to protest against a government that won kosher elections. These masses have great political power.

It appear that modern democracy is currently experiencing tectonic movements that create political-social tsunami waves, which may sweep through and destroy everything in their path, should the alarm not be raised at the right places on time.

Tamar Hermann is a professor at the Open University and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute

This article originally appeared on the Ynet website on March. 6, 2010.