Friday, August 20, 2010


Another Tea Party candidate (Ken Buck in Colorado) recently joined Nevada’s Sharron Angle in beating out the Republican establishment candidate in a primary election. Is this a trend? A potential game-changer? No one knows. But it’s a reason for busy outsiders to look a little more closely at this extraordinary -- yet curiously familiar – movement..

Even before mid-term electoral politics began to heat up, the Tea Party movement was becoming more openly partisan. The head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Jon Cornyn welcomed as “our nominees” six Tea Party-backed candidates, Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann got twenty three fellow Republicans to join the new Tea Party Caucus, and the “Tea Party Express” was reportedly created by Republican fund-raisers. A CBS poll reported Tea Party members as more middle class, better educated, and wealthier than the average American, while another poll showed them nine tenths white and considerably older and more conservative. The unifying theme is small and preferably impotent government – a sort of sketchy “Libertarianism Light”. Members who show up at rallies appear to be normal disaffected Americans.

Mainstream media have tended to portray a darker side. Rarely specific on policy, Tea Party sound bites like “take America back,” can have a racist undertone. Tea Party leaders have asked the Oklahoma legislature to create a new volunteer militia that would counter “federal infringement on state sovereignty”. Nevada Tea Partier Senate Republican candidate Sharron Angle has called for changing Security in unspecified ways, abolishing the Internal Revenue Service, getting out of the United Nations, and exposing the international conspiracy behind fluoridation of public water. More disturbing in the climate of populist rage, Angle called for applying “Second Amendment remedies” if Congress doesn’t shape up, with the first step to “take Harry Reid out”. In the same vein, Tea Party darling Sarah Palin called on her followers to “reload.” Both later tried to wiggle away from their incendiary remarks. But if stupidity is not an indictable offense, isn’t incitement to assassination?

These are all only glimpses. The movement’s structure is murky and its leadership fluid, so outsiders are like Plato’s cave dwellers, seeing only shadows of external events.

But history supplies some perspective. The Tea Party is hardly the first American anti-government movement. In the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, debt-ridden armed farmers tried to shut down the courts. In the 1790 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, farmers burdened by taxes attacked federal agents. The Know-Nothing Party of the 1850’s was a middle class populist attack on immigration. A hundred years later, anti-government protesters, calling income taxes illegitimate, engaged in tax evasion and scattered violence. By the 1970’s, a new Posse Comitatus, reviving the 1878 Act, urged vigilante justice to protest unlawful, tyrannical government. Its successor Liberty Amendment Committee got nine state legislatures to ask Congress to send their tax-repeal Amend0ment to the states for ratification.

Opening a wider lens, if the (unwritten) British constitution was designed to enable government to function in good times and bad, the U.S. Constitution was designed to keep King George III from coming back. Accordingly, the Constitution explicitly limited the power of the federal government, leaving the rest to the states. Historian Joseph Ellis painted a vivid picture of the popular mood of that day: “The dominant intellectual legacy of the Revolution . . . depicted any energetic expression of governmental authority as an alien force that all responsible citizens sought to repudiate and, if possible, overthrow".”

Sadly for the political fundamentalists, the reality is that now, two hundred and twenty one years later, the nation can function only if the Constitution is regarded as living rather than literally and figuratively frozen. Tea Partiers are right that the federal government has gone far beyond its original parameters to create a limited welfare state never contemplated in 1789. But the Constitution is not a mutual suicide pact, and whoever gets elected cannot long sustain a policy of little or no central government. The worlds of innovation, technology, communication, weaponry, commerce, and finance have changed beyond recognition -- changes underlying much of the populist unease (“I’m all for progress, what I can’t stand is change”). The Constitution’s commerce clause (in dispute again today) confirmed even in 1789 that only a central government can supply services required across state lines (now 50) not to mention an outside world of around 200 nations.

The Tea Party may further tilt the mid-term election to the right, although conservative splits could breathe new life into Democratic death row inmates. But when prosperity finally returns, much of its energy will be drained. Meanwhile Tea Partiers might ponder the words of Brazilian revolutionary Francisco Juliao: “To agitate is beautiful, to organize is difficult.” It’s hard to see the Tea Party movement having longer legs than earlier populist outbreaks.