By WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
The rise of the Tea Party movement has been the most controversial and dramatic development in U.S. politics in many years. Supporters have hailed it as a return to core American values; opponents have seen it as a racist, reactionary and ultimately futile protest against the emerging reality of a multicultural, multiracial United States and a new era of government activism.
Nonetheless, the Tea Party movement has clearly struck a nerve in American politics, and students of American foreign policy need to think through the consequences of this populist and nationalist political insurgency.
As is so often the case in the United States, to understand the present and future of American politics, one must begin by coming to grips with the past.
The Tea Party movement taps deep roots in U.S. history. It is best understood as a contemporary revolt of Jacksonian common sense — the idea that moral, scientific, political and religious truths can be ascertained by the average person — against elites perceived as both misguided and corrupt.
And although the movement itself may splinter and even disappear, the populist energy that powers it will not go away any time soon. Jacksonianism is always an important force in American politics; at times of social and economic stress and change, like the present, its importance tends to grow.
In foreign policy, Jacksonians embrace a set of strongly nationalist ideas. They combine a firm belief in American exceptionalism with deep skepticism about the nation’s ability to create a liberal world order. The Obama administration is trying to steer U.S. foreign policy away from Jacksonian approaches just as a confluence of foreign and domestic developments are creating a Jacksonian moment.
Forecasting how this newly energized populist movement will influence foreign policy is difficult. Public opinion is responsive to events; a terrorist attack inside U.S. borders or a crisis in East Asia or the Middle East, for example, could transform the politics of U.S. foreign policy overnight.
Nevertheless, some trends seem clear.
The first is that the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. The Palinite wing of the Tea Party (after Sarah Palin) wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing (Rand Paul) would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States’ profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected.
The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas.
Terrorist attacks and events such as the Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons are likely to keep that sense of international danger alive (recent polls show that up to 64 percent of the U.S. public favors military strikes to end the Iranian nuclear program). Widespread public concern about perceived threats from a rising China will also strengthen public support for a strong military force and global American engagement.
Paulites and Palinites are united in their dislike for liberal internationalism — the attempt to conduct international relations through multilateral institutions under an ever-tightening web of international laws and treaties.
There is much in the Tea Party movement to give pause, but effective foreign policy must always begin with a realistic assessment of the facts on the ground.
Today’s Jacksonians are unlikely to disappear. Americans should rejoice that in many ways the Tea Party movement, warts and all, is a significantly more capable and reliable partner for the United States’ world-order-building tasks than were the isolationists of 60 years ago. Compared to the Jacksonians during the Truman administration, today’s are less racist, less antifeminist, less homophobic, and more open to an appreciation of other cultures and worldviews.
Furthermore, today’s southern Republican populists are far more sympathetic to core liberal capitalist concepts than were the populist supporters of William Jennings Bryan a century ago.
Foreign policy mandarins often wish the public would leave them alone so that they can get on with the serious business of statecraft. That is not going to happen in the United States. If the Tea Party movement fades away, other voices of populist protest will take its place. American policymakers and their counterparts overseas simply cannot do their jobs well without a deep understanding of what is one of the principal forces in American political life.
Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest. A longer version of this article appears in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.