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I have been giving much thought to the burgeoning Tea Party movement and what it means to American Politics.  My intent is that this rather long post will be to examine the historical roots of Populists protest in America, to examine what the Tea Party Stands for, and attempt in some pathetic manner to link the past to the present.

Before beginning I want to set forth what the Tea Party Movement is about, I have taken it from the following web site http://www.teaparty.org (1 through 15).  I have grouped the concerns by broad categories of Economic, Constitutional, and Morality and Culture.  I am also including the Contract From America taken from http://www.thecontract.org/ which I have not categorized but have left in the same order as they appeared on the Web Site Contract From America (16 through 36).

  1. National Budget Must Be Balanced.
  2. Reduce Business Income Taxes Is Mandatory.
  3. Reduce Personal Income Taxes A Must.
  4. Deficit Spending Will End.
  5. Government Must Be Downsized.
  6. Stronger Military Is Essential.
  7. Pro-Domestic Employment Is Indispensable.
  8. Special Interests Eliminated.
  9. Bail-out And Stimulus Plans Are Illegal.
  10. Political Offices Available To Average Citizens.
  11. Gun Ownership Is Sacred.
  12. Intrusive Government Stopped.
  13. Illegal Aliens Are illegal.
  14. English Only Is Required.
  15. Traditional Family Values Are Encouraged.
  16. DEMAND A BALANCED BUDGET  Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike.
  17. STOP THE TAX HIKES  Permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains, and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011.
  18. COMMIT TO REAL GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY  Every bill, in its final form, will be made public seven days before any vote can be taken and all government expenditures authorized by any bill will be easily accessible on the Internet before the money is spent.
  19. PROTECT THE CONSTITUTION  Require each bill to identify the specific provision of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to do what the bill does.
  20. PASS MARKET-BASED HEALTHCARE & HEALTH INSURANCE REFORM  Make health care and insurance more affordable by enabling a competitive, open, and transparent free-market health care and health insurance system that isn’t restricted by state boundaries.
  21. ENACT FUNDAMENTAL TAX REFORM  Adopt a fair and simple single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution.
  22. END RUNAWAY GOVERNMENT SPENDING  Impose a statutory cap limiting the annual growth in total federal spending to the sum of inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth
  23. LET US SAVE  Allow young Americans the choice of opting out of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, creating both real financial security in retirement through the freedom to own your personal retirement savings, and reducing the long-term unfunded liabilities of the federal government
  24. PROTECT INTERNET FREEDOM  No regulation or tax on the Internet.
  25. GIVE PARENTS MORE CHOICES IN THE EDUCATION OF THEIR CHILDREN  Improve American education by reforming the broken federal role through eliminating ineffective and wasteful programs, giving parents more choices from pre-school to high school, and improving the affordability of higher education.
  26. PASS AN “ALL OF THE ABOVE” ENERGY POLICY  Authorize the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries and reduce regulatory barriers to all other forms of energy creation, lowering prices and creating competition.
  27. PROTECT FREEDOM OF THE PRESS  Prohibit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from using funds to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in any form, including requiring “localism” or “diversity” quotas.
  28. RESTORE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY & CONSTITUTIONALLY LIMITED GOVT  Create a Blue Ribbon taskforce that engages in a complete audit of federal agencies and programs, assessing their Constitutionality, and identifying duplication, waste, ineffectiveness, and agencies and programs better left for the states.
  29. PROTECT PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS  Block state and local governments that receive federal grants from exercising eminent domain over private property for the primary purpose of economic development or enhancement of tax revenues.
  30. REJECT CAP & TRADE  Stop costly new regulations that would increase unemployment, raise consumer prices, and weaken the nation’s global competitiveness with virtually no impact on global temperatures.
  31. STOP THE PORK  Place a moratorium on all earmarks until the process is fully transparent, including requiring a 2/3 majority to pass any earmark.
  32. AUDIT THE FED  Begin an audit of the Federal Reserve System.
  33. NO MORE BAILOUTS  The federal government should not bail out private companies and should immediately begin divesting itself of its stake in the private companies it owns from recent bailouts.
  34. STOP CAREER POLITICIANS & CURB LOBBYIST POWER  Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require Congressional term limits.
  35. SUNSET REGULATIONS & ENACT FUNDAMENTAL REGULATORY REFORM  Sunset all regulations in order to eliminate those that are wasteful, unconstitutional, and ineffective, and place strict limits on the ability of agencies to create regulations.
  36. LET US WATCH  Broadcast all non-security meetings and votes on C-SPAN and the Internet.

I do not know if I have capture all the issues which lie at the heart of the Tea Party Movement, like many populists protest of the past, the Tea Party movement has many branches, with some commonality but also with different agendas.  I will revisit this later as I examine the issues in more detail.

Part 1:  Populism and American Politics

First, we must work off a common definition of populism and populists, as defined at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Populism is:  “Populism, 1. the political philosophy of the People’s party, 2.(lowercase) any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies. 3.(lowercase) grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism. 4.(lowercase) representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.: populism in the arts; Populists, –noun 1.a member of the People’s party.  2.(lowercase) a supporter or adherent of populism.  –adjective 3.Also, Pop·u·lis·tic. of or pertaining to the People’s party. 4.Also, pop·u·lis·tic. (lowercase) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of populism or its adherents.”  For the purpose of this discourse I shall use the second definition under populism.

Populism and Populists have been part of the American landscape since the first colonists set foot on the shores of America.  As a nation of immigrants our reasons for immigrating to America have been varied, and with variety, has come a intrinsic sense of seeking freedom and setting a course different than the established governments of the lands we left.  While we remember the American Revolution as a revolt against concentrated authority in a distant and remote capital; the antecedents of that Revolution were sown in the Colony of Virginia in 1676.  Bacon’s Rebellion a little remembered footnote in American History was the revolt of colonists on the frontier of Virginia against the entrenched power of the Colonial Governor.  In many respect Nathaniel Bacon was the first Populists and the first of the Tea Party moment.

The roots of populism can and are found in the writings of the John Locke and Rousseau and their arguments that men are born into a state of nature, form governments out of mutual consent, and are free to severe the bonds which have connected them to the government grown despotic through their arrogance of the desires of the people.  The ideas of Locke and Rousseau are chiseled in the Declaration of Independence, where Jefferson says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Populism formed the basis of opposition to the new Constitution and was centered on a distrust of federal government and the concerns that the federal government would abridge the inherent rights of mankind.  The struggles between the Federalists and the Democrat-Republicans were as much about differencing visions for the United States.  The Federalist, and its leader Alexander Hamilton saw the future in an urban and industrial America, with an educated and equipped elite leading the nation to glory; Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans saw the future as being the yeoman farmer and agrarian orientated society, where the leaders of the Republic would come from all walks of life, and those coming from the heart of the nation, the yeoman farmers would bring common sense and belief in limited government to the affairs of the nation.  In the end the Democrat-Republicans triumphed over the Federalist in the electoral process, but the intellectual ideas of the Federalist have dominated the ethos of the nation.

Since the earliest day we have seen titanic struggles between the competing views of our nation a strong central government verses a federal government of limited scope and power.  Populism has been a constant theme in American History; Andrew Jackson ran and won on a platform grounded in fears of the Bank of the United States.  Populism lies at the heart of the turmoil of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century.  William Jennings Bryan ran against the concentrated power of railroads, big business, conglomerates, trusts, and big banks, which conspired against the honest men toiling the fields in order to earn an honest living.  He ran to restore the morality of the United States based on his understanding of Christianity.

In the 20th Century, the populist movement has been resurrected whenever economic times were hard, or whenever great changes washed over American society.  Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and George Wallace were all purveyors of a populists appeal and sentiment.  Long and Coughlin each in their own way were opposed to the New Deal; Long believed it did not go far enough in helping the little man, or in the words of his motto “Everyman a King”; and Coughlin feared that the New Deal was an evil plot by Jews and others to enslave America.

But 20th Century populism also had a new dynamic.  While all populism is based on a perceived fear of a strong central government, or a fear that the little man is being trapped by powers beyond his control, in the 20th Century populism has been tinged with a strong strain of racism.  While nothing new, populists like Pitchfork Ben Tillman and James Kimble Vardaman played on the fear of the black man and their assault on the purity of white women in order enact Jim Crow laws in the late 19th and early 20th Century.  But it was George Wallace who worked the masses as he sounded like Huey Long advocating for the little man and James K. Vardaman is seeing the threat to the nation because of the liberal Great Society and the Civil Rights Movement.

Wallace knew how to play to his constituents; his stand in the door of the University of Alabama had nothing to do with stopping the admission of Black Students rather was about stirring up his base, showing that he was standing up for the little man.  Wallace parlayed his role as a defender of the little man into a run for President a role that was ended by an attempted assassination in Maryland in 1972.  While he continued to run for elective office, no longer did he play he race card—while still a Populists he used his position for the enrichment of all regardless of race.

While historians have generally viewed the populism of Jefferson and Jackson, of William Jennings Bryan as endemic of progressive tendencies in the history of the United States; they have viewed populist’s moments in recent American history as being associated with the forces of reaction.  The theme of revolution is the one constant in the history of populism in the United States.  Revolution against the establishment whether it be the British Crown, the elites of the Federalists party, Big Money, or today; Big Government.

Like any movement populism has attracted it share of elements from the fringe.  In the past these fringe elements have tainted the view of the larger public towards populists and populism.  It can be argued that in the 1840’s and 50’s that the so called “Fire Eaters” of the deep south were viewed by their fellow southern populists as being a fringe element on the question of slavery.  By 1860 however, they had become the mainstream of populist rhetoric in the South, in part because the less radical voices had been found wanting with the election of Lincoln in 1860.  Today populists sentiment must deal with a host of fringe groups who appeal is populist but whose true intentions are often alarming.  Be it Lyndon LaRouche, KKK, or the American Nazi Party a host of fringe elements use and expound on the populists message as a means of legitimacy and as a means of hiding their true intentions.

But an understanding of populism cannot be gained without having an appreciation of Progressivism.  If populism was primarily a force of the frontier, particularly in the South and West, progressivism was a closely related, but altogether different supposed voice of the discontented people.  If populism was the voice of rural America, progressivism was the voice of urban American.  If populism placed great store in the common sense wisdom of the people; progressivism view the aspiration of the people as misguided unless given proper direction by experts.  Progressivism is a phenomenon of the East and West Coast, is an outgrowth of the Puritan belief in the imperfection of man and that through education and proper guidance man and society could become perfected.  The abolition movement is a classic example of this belief, as are a number of progressive reforms such as the primary which were seen as a means of transforming the raucous American political process into a refined example of a representative republic.  The heart and soul of the progressive movement was a belief that an educate elite could guide the country better than the uneducated plebeians of frontier.  George Will, in March 11, 2010 edition of the Washington-Post said of Woodrow Wilson and the progressives:

Wilson, once a professor of political science, said that the Princeton he led as its president was dedicated to unbiased expertise, and he thought government could be “reduced to science.” Progressives are forever longing to replace the governance of people by the administration of things. Because they are entirely public-spirited, progressives volunteer to be the administrators, and to be as disinterested as the dickens.

Despite the fact that both populism and progressivism have had a historical distain for the others core constituencies, at times in our history the goals have briefly merged, most notably in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century and again ever so briefly in the 1930 during the Depression.  But these have been brief and strange encounters which soon diverged on different paths.  As the core of the progressive message has been good government run efficiently by experts, which means more government; the core of the populist message has been about smaller and less intrusive government and wisdom of the common man.

Populism has been and is an essential part of the emotional American Character and will remain so well past my lifetime.

You will note that I have avoided using the terms right and left; conservative or liberal, in describing populism for they have an inherent bias.  The bias comes, in part, because the definitions of liberal and conservative have changed over the course of our history.  Jefferson was viewed by many as being a wide eyed radical and liberal, but today his ideology is seen as being conservative.  His views on the issues of his day have not changed, but how we view those issues has changed and progressed.  Thus I have chosen to avoid terms whose definition have evolved.

When I penned the first part of my commentary on the rise of the Tea Party movement, I spent a great deal of my time discussing the populists and progressivism, however as I was rereading it yesterday, I realized that I had forgotten two very important aspect of modern populism which needs to be discussed and included in order to gain and understanding of the tea party movement.

The first is Libertarianism.  Most often associated with the politics of Ron Paul, Congressman from Texas, it is a desire to leave the economic system entirely to the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith.  Libertarians would do away with all government regulation and in particular the Federal Reserve, which they equate to Alexander Hamilton’s national bank scheme.  In the realm of personnel liberty they would eliminate most laws from the books regulating personnel conduct.  Included in their list of laws which should be eliminated are: laws restricting abortion, prostitution, and drugs; although I have never seen anyone who is a serious Libertarian argue for the repeal of laws dealing with sexual relations with minors.

It can be argued that while Libertarianism and the Libertarian Party have never done well at the polls, that they have influence modern American politics.  To some degree both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan adopted arguments of the Libertarians as part of their political philosophy.

The second aspect of the populism, and one, which frankly I find hard to define or label is Ayn Randism.  I have never seen a name, although often this philosophy is associated with Libertarianism, it is a separate and distinct ideology.  I call it Ayn Randism after the philosopher queen of those holding these beliefs—Ayn Rand—whose seminal works are the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. As one, who once tried to read both and failed, (I also failed in reading War and Peace!) I shall do my best to summarize the core beliefs.

The essence of Rand’s philosophy is nihilism.  She argues against Governmental involvement in the lives of individuals, of corporations, against the statist’s tendencies of government over the lives of the citizens.  She believes, that the individuals is best able to determine their own lives, and that the individual should benefit from their sweat equity and reason without owing the intrusive parasites of government with its socialists tendencies any modicum of support.  It is clear, that Rand’s beliefs were influenced by the philosophy of Locke and Rousseau, and the arguments of Tom Paine.  In rejecting all government as evil, Rand is proposing a radical vision of society without order and living in chaos.  Chaos that only the individual can control and from which the individual and not the collective society benefits.

Both Libertarianism and Randism are underpins the collective philosophy of the modern populists movement.  What sets Randism and Libertarianism apart from the historical roots of populism is their belief that corporations will ultimately do what is right because it is in their inherent interests individually to do so.  Populism, whether the 19th or 20th Century variety was suspicious of corporations whose economic power was detrimental to the lives of the individual citizens.

So why has populism as expressed in the Tea Party movement risen to prominences.  What are the conditions that have incubated to such an extent that it has popular appeal?  Part II of this missive will exam that in more detail.  To be continued.

One thought on “Tea Party, Populism, and American History

  1. Populist rhetoric is nice and all, but that laundry-list of objectives is unattainable, and even if all that nonsense were somehow enacted, it would cripple the economy even more badly than Bush managed to.

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