BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Joel B. Pollak is the author of Wacko Birds, an account of the US Tea Party movement’s mixed fortunes and impact. He is the senior editor-at-large of Breitbart News, the right-leaning political news site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart. A graduate of both Harvard Law School and the University of Cape Town (where he studied a master’s in Jewish Studies), Pollak also served as Tony Leon’s speechwriter when the latter was leader of the official opposition in parliament.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote Wacko Birds firstly because I felt the Tea Party has been misunderstood. I wanted to show how it fit into the American political system as a necessary opposition force. In so doing, I hoped to explain its legitimacy to those who might otherwise be inclined to believe the worst media slander about it. I also wrote Wacko Birds because I think some constructive criticism of the Tea Party is long overdue—chiefly in regard to its failure to make the most of leadership opportunities.
How would you define the Tea Party?
The Tea Party can be defined by three core principles: a commitment to limited, constitutional government; strong opposition to runaway federal spending; and intolerance towards corruption, either for the benefit of business or labour. To that, some would add a traditional defence of American sovereignty. But that is more of a classic posture of the Republican Party, not the Tea Party in particular, which can be quite ambivalent about foreign policy.
What made it explode onto the political scene?
The seeds of what became the Tea Party were planted in the closing months of the George W. Bush administration, with inchoate conservative opposition to the massive Wall Street bailouts. Many felt that the big banks should be allowed to fail—that doing otherwise meant weakening the system of incentives that is necessary for a healthy, free market economy. What really triggered the Tea Party, however, was President Barack Obama’s massive stimulus package in February 2009—a law that spent nearly $1 trillion on propping up Obama’s political allies through grants to state and local governments, wasteful “green jobs” boondoggles, and the like. It was nearly 20 times larger than the stimulus Obama had promised on the campaign trail, nearly the cost of the entire war on terror, and a predictable failure. Many Americans were outraged by the plan—and by Obama’s clear refusal to consider Republican alternatives. That, combined with several political and media events I describe in Wacko Birds, caused the Tea Party to emerge as a political force that changed American politics.
What was the movement’s most pivotal moment?
Undoubtedly, the 2010 elections marked the high point of the Tea Party (so far), with massive victories for Republicans across the nation. Though the Republicans failed to take the Senate as well, it is important to understand just how important 2010 was, in terms of reversing the momentum that Obama and the Democrats had once had. No less than James Carville, Clinton political strategist extraordinaire, had predicted 40 years of congressional dominance for Democrats. So for the Tea Party to push Democrats to defeat so quickly was a great political achievement. It also halted, or rather slowed, the massive expansion of federal power and spending that Democrats had hoped to bring about in the wake of the 2008 crisis.
How much influence does it carry today?
The Tea Party carries tremendous influence in terms of defining American political debate, and holding the line on key issues. It single-handedly stopped Democrats and Republicans from forcing through was what euphemistically called “comprehensive immigration reform,” for example. However, in individual political races the Tea Party sometimes struggles. It has proven most effective at removing moderate Republicans from office, and rather less effective at dislodging left-wing Democrats, most obviously in the case of Barack Obama himself.
What was the most surprising thing you encountered while researching or writing the book?
I think the most surprising thing is how the Tea Party has embraced the book, despite some of my criticisms of the movement. I think that is a sign of political maturity.
What is the biggest misconception about the movement?
The biggest misconception is that it is racist. That is a lie propagated by the Democratic Party and its allies in the media. It is probably a lie that has filtered into South African perceptions of the Tea Party, via CNN and other sources. It has no basis whatsoever. Ironically, the Tea Party is actually responsible for the rapid rise of new, young black, Latino, and female candidates, who could not get around the gatekeepers of the Republican Party until they had the Tea Party to help them amplify their message. That is a reality the media ignore.
What lessons does this movement have for South Africa and other developing countries?
I think the most important lesson for South Africa is the importance of constitutional principles. My old friends in the Democratic Alliance may cringe—wrongly—to read this, but the fact is that the DA’s constitutionalism and the Tea Party’s constitutionalism are essentially the same. Without a strong constitution to restrain government, democracy quickly becomes tyranny. South Africa and other developing countries often define their goals in terms of what government sets out to achieve. But if they focused, as the Tea Party does, on the question of what individuals may achieve without interference from government, I think developing countries would benefit greatly. Part of the problem in South Africa is that big government is baked into the constitutional cake, as it were, with socioeconomic rights. That’s where the DA has been innovative in providing services by reducing the role of government. More of that is needed.
Your book has received an endorsement from Sarah Palin, one of the American Right’s most colourful and controversial characters. What’s your personal take on her, and do you think she’s got her sights set on the White House?
I think Sarah Palin can achieve anything she sets out to achieve. She is a uniquely authentic voice in American politics. I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon and evening with her and her family recently in Alaska, and they are wonderful, warm and genuine people. I think she has suffered greatly from the character assassination by Democrats and the media. But she has shown tremendous resilience, and she still has enormous impact on particular political races, when she chooses to become involved. I am not sure she wants to be president, but if not, any future administration should consider her for Secretary of Energy or Secretary of the Interior. No one better understands the balance of development and environment.
What does the future hold for the movement — do you think it will ever get someone into the White House?
I think any Republican who wants to win will have to be seen, simultaneously, as a Tea Party candidate and a candidate in general. In Wacko Birds, I describe how some Tea Party-backed leaders have managed that balance at the state level. There are several potential candidates in 2016 who could do the same at the national level. The more interesting thing to watch is how Democrats try to position themselves as more conservative than they actually are in order to minimize pushback from the Tea Party. That tells you the movement is winning.