The mad hatters at the Tea Party aren't stupid

US Democrats may be quick to ridicule the Tea Party, but its rise highlights a growing cultural rift between progressives and disenchanted older generations. It would be very foolish to dismiss them.

Forrest Gump immortalised the phrase “stupid is, as stupid does”. In the wake of the latest federal shutdown, most Americans would readily apply it to the Tea Party movement. Can there be anything more idiotic than flirting with a voluntary sovereign default? Who is to say it will not try again in the coming months?

Yet if the goal is to defeat the Tea Party, calling it stupid is not the smartest thing to do. Tea Partiers offer a never-ending supply of late-night comic material. But insulting their IQ only improves the odds their Washington representatives will try again. It reinforces their worldview of a town run by Ivy League snobs. It is also hard to square with the facts. In the past two years, the Tea Party has converted President Obama’s fiscal stimulus into a sharp budgetary contraction – a key aim of the movement. It might be wrong-headed. But its success hardly qualifies it as stupid.

Yet the temptation to belittle the Tea Party is very hard to resist. Earlier this year, Bill Clinton said the Tea Party was full of people who “check their brains in at the door”. In his first campaign, Obama talked of economically beleaguered small-town people who “cling to guns, religion or antipathy to people who are not like them”. More recently Tea Partiers have been described by members of the Washington establishment as “jihadists”, “morons” and “lemmings in suicide vests”.

If only things were that simple. Politics is also about psychology. Ronald Reagan was partly able to defeat Great Society liberalism in the 1980s because he knew how Democrats thought. He had once been a Democrat and liked to socialise with them. Things are far more polarised in the US nowadays. Obama rightly wants to eviscerate the Tea Party’s clout in Washington. In addition to blocking almost all of his domestic agenda, it has shown itself capable of serial recklessness.

Yet Obama shares little insight as to what motivates their support base. I have met Tea Partiers who say they do not know anyone who does not revile Obama. And I know liberals who proudly declare they do not have a single Republican friend. Most of the Obama crowd has more in common with bike-sharing Europeans than small-town Americans. They inhabit parallel self-ratifying media and increasingly separate cultures.

It is a surprisingly balanced dialogue of the deaf. Roughly a fifth of Americans support the Tea Party and roughly a fifth self-identify as liberal. With some reason the latter believes history is on its side. Gay marriage is increasingly accepted and the US continues to get more multi-ethnic each year. But they underestimate the Tea Party’s ability to put a brake on everything else.

Indeed, US history suggests this show could run and run. The closest parallel to today’s Republican Party is the late 19th century Democrats – the party of the defeated South. In spite of having lost the civil war, it managed to restore much of the reality of slave society through ‘Jim Crow’ laws. Then, like now, Americans were living through a period of disruptive new technology, robber baron-scale inequality and unsettling mass immigration from non-English speaking cultures. The obstinacy of the so-called Dixiecrats persisted right up to the 1960s.

Another cautionary parallel is with Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 Republican bid to defeat Lyndon Johnson – the president who finally brought civil rights to the south. The arch-conservative Goldwater was a forerunner of the Tea Party. His crushing defeat convinced many that the New Deal and the Great Society had become immutable. Within four years Richard Nixon had reclaimed the White House, partly by converting southern Dixiecrats into Republicans. And within 16 years, the genial Mr Reagan was rewriting the rule book.

The past tells us that the future is unpredictable. There is nothing preordained about the Tea Party’s demise. Nor is its sense of burning grievance unique in today’s world. The growth of parties such as the Front National in France and the UK Independence party is similar to the Tea Party’s rise.

Each country has its political DNA. In the US, race and class are always hard to disentangle. Yet it is also clear that Tea Partiers, like many Americans, face declining incomes and a growing dread about their economic security. Inevitably, they scapegoat others. That does not mean their fears are imaginary. Most Tea Partiers tell pollsters they think their children will be worse off than they are. So do most Americans.

Obama was right last week to say that he hoped the Republican Party’s take-no-prisoners tactics would be replaced by something more constructive. The prospect of another three or four months of Tea Party fiscal attrition – followed by another deadline when the two sides fail to agree – is hardly uplifting. It could be the story of his second term.

But hope is not a strategy. The Tea Party speaks for tens of millions of mostly non-urban whites, mostly middle-aged and older, who believe Obama is redistributing their hard-earned nest eggs to younger, less deserving, Americans. Their embittered sense of alienation has driven a selfish and destructive politics in Washington. But it is not stupid.

Consider this: all US domestic budget cuts to date – and they are steep – have fallen on the younger generations. Medicare and Social Security remain untouched. By that yardstick the Tea Party is succeeding. At any rate, its failure should never be assumed. As Mr Gump puts it: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”