karl-henrik pettersson


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Notes on a society in crisis (7): The U.S. Tea Party movement

On April 1st, my book,” Dagbok från USA”, came out in Sweden. It will also soon be published in English (as an e-book for Kindle and for other readers) with the title: “Diary from the United States – Notes on a society in crisis“. As an appetizer for English speaking readers, I will the coming weeks publish some excerpts from the book.

 A manifestation of people’s distrust

The Tea Party movement is a recent example of populism, in this case, right-wing populism. A recent example of left-wing populism is when the South African ANC Youth League lets its president, Julius Malema, claim that the South African mining industry should be nationalized.

It’s not so easy to define populism, except that populists claim to represent the people at large. Paul Taggart, an English political science professor and probably the person who has spent the most time on sorting out what populism stands for, believes that there are three themes that characterize populist movements. They are critical of representative democracy, and they strive to polarize politics, “us against them”, “Muslims against Christians”, “big-city against rural areas”, “poor against rich”, etc., and they envision, if they got more of a say in the way things work, a “Heartland”, a fictitious country of the future. Exactly what this fictitious country of the future consists of is mostly unclear.

The most robust feature of populists is that overall they do not like the “establishment”, and that goes for the establishment in all forms, from politicians and union leaders to journalists and bankers. In particular, they do not like people sitting at the top of society, the most established. Machiavelli said that in all kingdoms, one can distinguish two centers of power besides the Prince: the establishment and the mass, the Great and the People. This model fits well if one wants to explain populism. It’s the People’s manifestation of distrust of the Great. Populists are also critical of other groups that are close to the top of society – experts, intellectuals, social engineers, lobbyists, lawyers, etc. With the same logic they have doubts about centralization and concentration of power.

Populism is also isolationistic, some would say nationalistic, since national interests are more important than other interests. In other words, internationalism isn’t big with populists. Walter Russell Mead, an American professor of international relations, has recently written an interesting article about the Tea Party movement in Foreign Affairs. He writes that although the movement is fuzzy and difficult to grasp, a common trait is distrust of international cooperation. As he sums it up: “The United States is unlikely to ratify many new treaties written in the spirit of liberal internationalism for some time to come.” This does not bode well if we contemplate the global challenges, not least in the environmental field. Isolationism is superimposed by another populist motif that I already have mentioned, distrust of experts. “The rejection of scientific consensus on climate change is one of many examples of populist revolt against expert consensus in the United States today”, writes Mead. It’s no wonder that the climate issue in these Tea Party times is given so comparatively little space in the American political debate.

Is populism an ideology? I wouldn’t call populism an ideology in the sense that socialism and liberalism are ideologies. These are forward-looking political ideas and programs that paint a picture of a better world than the one we have. Populism is mainly retrospective. It’s on the lookout for “the good old days”, before the immigrants came, before the capitalists decided everything, before Obama became president, etc. In other words, populism is as a rule reactive. Those who call themselves populists and represent populist parties react to something in the community that, as they see it, is wrong.

There are two things in particular that trigger their wrath, because widespread anger is a hallmark of populism. First, populism grows when the people currently in power take too much of the economic pie. When, for example, income inequality in a country has grown big for a long time, and in particular when “Joe Six-pack” is affected, when it’s not just the poor who suffer financially but also ordinary middle class citizens, then conditions are ripe for a populist shift. It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party movement emerged in the U.S. in recent years, after 2008. The country has the biggest income inequalities in the Western world and a middle class that has seen its real wages stagnate for almost 40 years. When crisis strikes with financial consequences for many people in the middle, as well as on the bottom of the economic spectrum, populist sentiment is stirred up.

The other thing that can get populism to flourish is when many “ordinary people” feel that their traditional values are getting diluted too rapidly, for example by high immigration in a short time or multicultural messages from the establishment. This can apparently occur even in a country where income differentiation is relatively modest. The emergence of the Sweden Democrats [a nationalist party which for the first time in 2010 was elected to Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament] is a concrete example. It’s conceivable that these two features – large economic inequalities and rapid cultural dilution – can overlap in a country. Possibly, it would then give rise to a populist movement that is socially radical yet culturally conservative, perhaps even nationalistic.

Why do we think ill of populists and populist parties? The question is wrongly put. The correct question is: Why does the establishment think ill of populists and populist parties? The answer is probably that most of the time the populists’ proposals are naive and unrealistic, if not directly stupid, seen through the eyes of the establishment. Populists are simply considered irresponsible. For example, it’s very difficult for the U.S. political establishment to comprehend why one of the Tea Party movement’s most prominent figures, Michele Bachman, would brag that she voted against the agreement on the debt ceiling increase in Congress.

Is there anything positive about populism? Many would probably answer no to that question. But one can look upon an emerging populism as a shrill signal that there is something in society that is not right, and that the established political parties do not care about it sufficiently. I would argue that it’s something positive.


Taggart, P., 2000, Populism, Open University Press, Philadelphia;

Mead, WR, 2011, “The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy”, Foreign Affairs, March / April 2011;


First published (in Swedish): August 23, 2011







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