AUSTIN - A few miles from the Texas state capital, the Lyon and Rose Pub looks too British to be hosting a meeting of conservative Americans. But the Austin Tea Party is holding its meeting here, in a room decorated for Halloween with hanging spiders and skulls.
The Tea Party is said to represent a lower middle-class America, angry against everything "Inside the Beltway," meaning Washington politics as usual.
In the back of the room, Craig Bushon, following in the footsteps of Rush Limbaugh, is broadcasting a live Internet radio show on Befirstinmedia.com. To him, the media are conspiring with the left. Even Walter Cronkite, the icon of American journalism, is part of the conspiracy. He fooled the American people, says Bushon. In the audience, fifteen or so people, mostly older, all white, are listening.
We are in Texas, a part of the southern United States typically depicted as a conservative monolith, with the outdated look of a cowboy clutching his right to bear arms, saying "yes" to the death penalty without thinking about it too much.
But at the Lyon and Rose, Ken Topping, a balding man with a white beard, is following Bushon's show while tapping away on his iPad. The affable chemical engineer does not seem like the Tea Party stereotype of a bitter white man. He believes in a minimalist government and taxes, and maximum liberty. "I am ultra-conservative on budgetary matters. Socially, I don't care if gays want to marry. It’s a free country." Ken Topping puts November 6, the election date, in perspective. "The 2012 presidential election is a crossroads. Either we stay anchored to capitalism or we choose socialism, the path of Greece or Spain."
Next to him, Mike Stein, a former government employee, joins the discussion, attacking President Barack Obama. "The only system he knows is social justice. He was elected president, not secretary of equality."
Patricia Topping, Ken's wife, has a Mitt Romney badge pinned to her shirt. She is a retired nurse. She refuses to condemn abortion and contraception. "I worked 37 years as a nurse, so I know what I’m talking about. One day I saw a young mother who had swallowed drugs to kill her fetus. Ever since, I've been convinced that if the pill were distributed more widely, we would not have these problems."
In the center of Austin, practically next door to ARCH, a homeless shelter where dozens of Americans are desperately waiting for their American dream to come true, Peggy Venable runs the Texan office of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative pressure group founded with the support of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. She expresses boundless enthusiasm for the conservative rebels.
“We adore the Tea Party. It's a movement that is waking us up. The Obama administration is running America into the ground. He's going to transform the country. We have to react. The Tea Party is democracy in action. It's the first time that the American right has paid much attention to the grass-roots."
The movement's champions are sure that by 2016, a new generation that identifies with Tea Party ideas will dominate the Republican Party.
On the walls of her office, Venable has hung several portraits of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. A photo of herself with Karl Rove, the former Republican strategist, stands proudly on the bookshelf. She worked in the Reagan administration and is such a fan of the former president that she still listens to tapes of his speeches in her car.
"The United States has fallen to number 18 in the world in economic freedom. The government cannot keep on growing faster than the population and inflation. In that sense, Texas has something to teach Washington. It's the state that has created the most jobs and that exports the most." What does she think of the Bushes? "Texans adore them. But they don't have the same idea of government as we do."
The Tea Party is home to a vast spectrum of conservative demands, on such subjects as the budget, abortion, homosexual rights, and global warming. Dave Nalle, 59, is a libertarian and a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus. "We are not neo-conservatives, ready to be the world's policeman. That's not what American conservatism is about," he says.
Dean Wright, 56, is reserved but friendly. He founded Rapid PCB, a company that sells printed circuits. Wright spearheads "New Revolution Now," a Tea Party movement founded in January 2010. Speaking freely, in the middle of Starbucks, he talks of his projects for “the next American revolution."
"The federal government's power should be limited to ensuring its citizens' safety and liberty. Imposing health insurance on us is a violation of the Constitution," says Wright. "It's up to the individual to take care of his or her own health care." The only exception he allows for are major expenses like organ transplants or cancer.
Not just rhetoric
In Texas, the Republicans did not need the Tea Party in order to dominate the local political scene, but the movement has shaken them up. In the Senate race, establishment candidate David Dewhurst was badly beaten in the primaries by Ted Cruz, a little-known Cuban-American, who benefited from massive on-the-ground efforts by the Tea Party. The Grand Old Party has indeed veered to the right.
Texas has suffered less from the economic crisis than other states, and its unemployment rate is 7.1%, lower than the national rate. "But local communities have accumulated $322 billion of debt," Venable says. The state of Texas has a debt of $287 billion, in spite of the ultra-conservatism proclaimed by Governor Perry.
The arrival of four million immigrants in 10 years has required more infrastructure. "Republicans, like Democrats, have a tendency to spend money," Venable admits. "But the difference is that at least Republicans feel guilty."
The impact of the Tea Party is not only rhetorical. The most obvious example is women's health, one of Governor Perry's favorite targets, with the support of the Tea Party. Sarah Wheat, vice president of community affairs at Austin's Planned Parenthood, says that since the Tea Party's entry into politics, things have radically changed for the organization, the biggest women's health NGO in the United States. The change is perceived as "going backward."
Wheat, who is from Chicago, moved to Austin several years ago. She remembers, "In 2010, shortly after his reelection, Governor Rick Perry decided it was urgent to pass a law imposing mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. That law came into effect in October 2011. Now when a woman wants an abortion, she has to go to the hospital 24 hours ahead of time. A text written by politicians is read to her. Even if the patient does not want to see the ultrasound images, the doctor must describe them to her."
Sarah Wheat has another reason to be upset. In autumn 2011, Rick Perry and the Texas legislature reduced Planned Parenthood's budget, even though it came from the federal government, from $111 million to $38 million. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney plans to eliminate that subsidy completely. Sixty Planned Parenthood clinics had to close. However, there is still a great deal of need for care among poor women aged 18 to 35. "The question is whether these Tea-Party-style measures against women's health will last. There are 180,000 women who have no health insurance and they will lose access to mammograms, Pap smears (which detect cervical cancer) and contraception. From a public health point of view, it's a terrible regression," says Wheat.
The Planned Parenthood official also does not understand the financial argument. "Contraceptive measures cost $200. Having a baby on Medicaid costs $1,600." The organization thinks it is the victim of the new social conservatism in Texas. "A lot of people see Planned Parenthood as an abortion organization. It does carry out abortions, but that is a very minor activity compared to the other services it provides," says Wheat. The organization was able to keep some of its services thanks to 900 donors in Austin. On the front of the clinic, a banner says, "Thanks Austin! This clinic is open."
Alexis Lohse, 31, has no health insurance. She has two daughters, one 7 years old, the other four. She counts on Planned Parenthood for low-cost health care. "For the past two years I have become a student again, 20 hours a week. I also have two jobs that add up to 40 hours a week. My husband and I have a mortgage to pay. Without Planned Parenthood, I don't know how I would survive."