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Part 3:  The Tea Party, Right—Not, Wrong—Yes; and Why They Are So Interesting[1]

One of the great virtues of studying history is one is able to put events into context.  As you will note from my previous posts on the Tea Party, I have attempted to put them into historical context and to make some determinations as to what fuels the so called Tea Party movement.[2]

It would be easy to dismiss the Tea Party as being a fringe movement.  It is not.  It is clearly rooted in the ethos of American politics.  It is evenly distributed across the nation, although it would appear it is stronger in the heart of the nation than along the East and West Coasts.  It would also be easy to suggest it is confined primarily to white males—it is not.  There are significant numbers of females and some minority representation within the Tea Party movement.  It would be easy to suggest that the Tea Party movement reflects the angst of Americans about economic uncertainties, while certainly contributing economics are not the sole reason for angst.

As I have tried to demonstrate, over the preceding two parts of this rather long essay, the Tea Party movement is firmly rooted in the raucous nature of American political tradition.  It reflects the populist nature of movements which have come before, movements that sought to restore the people’s faith in their government.  But what those preceding movements often lacked was a visceral hatred for government.

As a nation we have always had a “libertarian” streak in our politics.  Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were both greatly influenced by the writings of men like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu.  Words like life, liberty, and property became the watchwords of our revolution.  While these words were great for inspiring a revolution they were too ill defined to serve as a basis for governance.

Rather than turn to men like Jefferson or Thomas Paine, our nation turned to men who understood the nature of government.  The shape of our Constitution, and in fact many of its provisions, belong to the genius of one man, James Madison of Virginia.  Madison was a student of history and philosophy.  He was a conservative in the mold of the father of modern conservatism—Edmund Burke.  For Burke, the role of government is not to protect natural rights, but rather to “provide authority, constraint, and domination.”

Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that evening the mass and body, as well as in the individual, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will be controlled, and their passions brought into subjection.  This can only be done by a power out of themselves.[3]

Burke understood, what it seems the Tea Party does not,

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.[4]

There are many commentators who contribute the Tea Party to being a conservative reaction to the progressive politics of Barrack Obama—the Tea Party is not conservative—it is a radical movement, which seeks to fundamentally reshape American politics.

What separates the modern Tea Party from their forbearers; is unlike the populists who saw unregulated big business as the great threat to the prosperity and freedom of the people, the Tea Party sees the government as the greatest threat to the people.  Here they share a common trait with the men who made the American Revolution—they are Revolutionaries.  They are not conservatives for they wish to overturn the status quo and shape the future of the nation in the image of their vision of the past.

The terms conservative, liberal, radical, have lost their meaning, as most only think they know the meaning of these words.  Even worse politicians and the main stream media thrown around these terms in a wildly uncontrolled fashion, so that even those who know the meaning pay little attention to what is said.

I have always been fascinated by words.  The English language is rich in that it has so many words with specific meaning, that when used correctly they convey a powerful message.  In college, an English professor used to admonish us that the word “unique” did not require any modifiers; that alone it conveyed its meaning; “unique; being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.”  The professor, Herbert Nash Dillard was himself unique and his message has stayed with me all these years.

If one looks at the assorted definitions of “conservative,” the first definition clearly defines what the hallmark of conservatism is, “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”  Preserve.  It is also interesting that conserve, conservative, and conservation all flow from the same root word the Latin word “Conservatus (Latin):  keep safe/intact| save (from danger); preserve| maintain; spare; keep/observe.”  Unlike previous generations of true conservatives, the Tea Party and its followers rather than preserving wish to reshape our nation into their view of what they believe the founders intended.

Fear of Experts

The Tea Party movement is in some ways a continuation of the anti-intellectualism that Richard Hofstadter wrote of in the 1960’s.  But unlike what Hofstadter wrote of, the Tea-Party movement is more a reaction to the anti-expert and in some ways is a counter-reaction to the Progressive politics of the 20th and 21st Century.  When I speak of Progressive politics I am not talking about liberalism—rather I am talking about the certain belief among the political class—that rational men could persuade the American public that through good government the ills of society could be cured.  These rational men would be the experts—men trained in the science of government and who bring efficiency and rational expectations to the process of governance.  The greatest exemplifier of this of course is Thomas Woodrow Wilson.  More on President (Professor) Wilson later.

Some of the ideas, which the Progressive have given our nation, include the voter-initiated referendum, primary elections, and the belief that America was a democracy, judicial elections, and direct election of Senators.  This is not to say they are all bad.  Many of their ideas have merit but others have proven woefully misguided in execution.

Perhaps the nadir of the Progressive impulse is found in the writing of John Dewey who as philosopher was a major influence on the movement.  His most lasting contribution was as an educator and his belief that Schools of Education would produce better teachers and as such better students who were prepared to be useful members of society.  While I am not an educator, I have some rather strong beliefs, that our Schools of Education are a joke.  They seem to go through phases of pedagogically inspired groupthink that represents the latest good idea.  I believe it is safe to say that Professor Dewey and the education experts he created gave rise to a monster which most Americans find wanting.

I have a business card, which I use occasionally which says, “Opinions on any subject, expert on none.”  Experts in our society are often self-described.  They say it often enough that not only do they believe it but others believe it.  We see this everyday on the TV in which someone claims to be an expert on one subject or another.  While I do not discount that they are knowledgeable of the subject of which they speak but what is really infuriating to the American public, is there is no dissent from their view.  Take Global warming for instance.  There is a great group of scientists who believe global warming is a reality based on their models, but there is also a minority of scientists, to include Pat Michaels, who say “wait minute, not so fast.”  Do we ever see or hear the dissenters?  No as the experts have defined the subject and we are all to fall into line.  Recently it was revealed that a prominent physician in the United Kingdom had falsified findings about the link between a vaccination and Autism.  Many parents quickly jumped on this bandwagon and refused to allow their children to have the vaccinations (or as the Brits say jabs!) putting their children and others in danger of catching easily preventable diseases.  Because he was a self-proclaimed expert no one challenged him initially.  But it is not just science or education where experts rule and misrule our lives.

Americans have a distrust of experts and the Tea Party is a reflection of this.  The issues that are driving the fear of experts have much to do with the responses to the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.  The response of the government, at the urging of the financial experts was to allow one investment bank to fail and to prop up the rest because of their foolish behavior.  Behavior that the average man on the street would have appalling and risky but because it was other people’s money the bank felt no compulsion to be prudent.

What really irritated most Americans is that the so-called experts in government, academia, and the private sector sold our financial prosperity down the road through a false belief that major recessions were a thing of the past.  That big banks and the Federal Reserve could so manipulate the economy that bad things would not happen.  That regulation was not needed, that competition (the invisible hand) would regulate and prevent problems.  Guess what, they fundamentally forgot one thing, human nature and the nature of humans is to be greedy.

A Distain for Status Quo Politics

One of the reason Americans voted for Barrack Obama was their belief he would bring change to the political order.  This has not happened.  Unless he follows Bill Clinton and stages a comeback; at this juncture in his Presidency it is looking increasingly like he shall be a one term President.[5]

When I speak of Status Quo Politics I refer to the clubby atmosphere of Congress.  The clubby atmosphere allows a Representative or Senator to publically oppose a legislative proposal but to privately ensure that their constituents benefit from that proposal.  In today Congress or Senate there are few examples of profiles in courage.[6]

What is remarkable about the clubby atmosphere is that regardless of party, regardless of vowing to resist the inbred culture of Washington, it seems that soon they have adopted the ways and mores of the status quo culture.  Rather than being seen as someone who wishes to do good for the nation, they follow lock step the direction of their leadership.

Partisanship Rules or How I Learned to Hate the Other Party

David Broder, the dean of the American Political Reporters, observed recently in his twice weekly commentary in the Washington Post, that what is different today and from earlier time is that Partisanship takes precedence over doing what is good for the nation.[7] He writes:

One of them — Ford — achieved the presidency only briefly, when Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The other — Dole — failed each time he ran. But no one regards them as political failures, because they realized that victory is counted in more than vote totals. They won the ultimate tests of character for two reasons. They did not sacrifice their political principles. And they acknowledged that they shared the responsibility for making this system of government work.

It helped that they came to Washington as young military veterans, survivors of a war against an implacable enemy. They knew the difference between the Nazis, who were truly evil, and the Democrats, who were simply fellow Americans with different political beliefs (emphasis added).

For Obama and the Republicans to establish a productive post-election atmosphere, it may require nothing more than the recapture of that wisdom of their political forebears. Behave as if you are veterans, and today’s political disputes will recede to their proper size.

To describe the political atmosphere in Washington as toxic is an understatement.  It is perhaps more poisoned than any time in our history since before the Civil War.  While there have been no incidents comparable to Representative Preston Brooks’ attack on Senator Charles Sumter of Massachusetts it has not been without division.  Representative Joe Wilson shouting out during the President Obama’s State of the Union “You lie” is the best example of the toxic atmosphere.

In part the twenty-four hour news cycle has been responsible for much of the bile spewed forth.  Whether it be Fox as the mouthpiece for the Tea Party and the conservative agenda; or MSNBC as the mouthpiece for Move On.Org and the Democratic Party, one can tune in anytime during the day and see partisans shouting at each other.  The so called “chattering class”[8] antics have influenced the actions of members of both Houses.  Decorum has given way to outburst, charges, and accusations.  Real discourse is dead.

If the shouting between the “chattering class” on TV is discouraging; listen to what passes for enlightened discourse on the radio.  Whether it is Rush Limbaugh on the right or Pacifica Radio on the left, sputtering provocateurs spew forth a combination of bile, lies, half-truths, innuendos, and conspiracy theories that are then lapped up and repeated throughout the blog sphere.  After a while, they take on a life of their own and become accepted truths, despite any evidence to contrary.  Those who listen to talk radio, left and right, soon believe that the other side is a) socialism and communism or b) Darth Vader and fascism incarnate.

While we are led to believe these views represent America, I believe that most Americans want our elected representatives to act like civilized adults and to solve the problems of the country.

Congressional Leadership—F as in failure:

Let me list five names:

  • Nancy Pelosi
  • Harry Reid
  • John Boehner
  • Mitch McConnell
  • Newt Gingrich

What is your opinion of them, not much I suspect?

Here are five more names:

  • John McCormick
  • Robert Michaels
  • Gerald Ford
  • Robert Dole
  • Mike Mansfield

The two groups have nothing in common except the represent the best and worst of Congressional leadership.  The first group is by their nature divisive, whereas the second group, as David Broder stated, stood by their principals but remembered they were elected to govern.

The extremes of both parties have so punished those who seek compromise and practice bi-partisanship that the ability of Congress to effectively govern is hampered.  Regardless of party, the extremes dictate an orthodoxy which will be followed, and woe be on to the member who deviates.  The most endangered species in Congress are moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats.  And we wonder why nothing gets done, or when it gets done it is railroaded through despite the concerns and objections of the minority.

In short divisive leadership has produced a broken Congress whose inability to do what is right has angered the citizens of our nation.

The Rise of the Nanny State:

While we as a nation, have not succumbed to the same level of nannyism as is found in the United Kingdom and European countries, there is a feeling that the reach of government has gone too far.  Whether it is barring smoking in open public spots, mandatory helmet and seat belt laws, gas mileage requirements, clean air requirements, education requirements, or the host of other statutory and regulatory provisions which affect our daily lives.

Perhaps the most visible intrusion into our daily lives is the increased security of our public buildings.  The security is often intrusive and is based on a presumption that all are potential terrorist.  Nowhere is this more evident than at the airports, where all are subject to every type of intrusion short of full body cavity searches in the name of order.

The most visible manifestation of the antipathy towards the nanny state is the demands that our government be radically reduced; that is the government except those portions involved in National Security.  The anger and frustration is real and is tied to the current economic situation of the nation; but also tied to the belief that government has become too large and therefore is ineffective.

Anger at Progressivism:

Glen Beck has made much in recent weeks and months about how the road to perdition began with the Progressive movement.  While I have many problems with some aspects of the good government movement of the, on a whole it was positive.  Unfortunately, according to Beck’s distorted view of American history, everything and most especially the rise of big government must rest with Woodrow Wilson and his presidency.

While I have admitted I have problems Woodrow Wilson.  His Calvinists nature and belief that he alone had all the answer, particularly in settling World War I, I find quite disturbing.  However, his progressive impulses when compared with Theodore Roosevelt are conservative.

Yes he supported the creation of the Federal Reserve, yet this was not a new idea, but one first pushed by Alexander Hamilton.  The creation of the Federal Reserve made sense given the United States rise as an international industrial and financial power.

Yes he supported the 16th Amendment which constitutionally permitted a progressive Income Tax.  This was a direct response to the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn a congressionally imposed income tax.  The notion of the income tax had broad support in the United States with the middle class and the working class; the only opponents were the great financiers who believed they owed little to the nation.    Originally intended to be a set percentage with few if any deductions or credit, in the almost hundred years since the 16th Amendment was ratified this has evolved considerably as ever special interest groups and the American people have carved out exception.

Yes, he supported the 17th Amendment, calling for the direct election of the Senate.  While I have problems of overturning the wisdom of the founders, as a whole the direct of election of Senators has been a good thing for our representative democracy.  The republic is better for it, though it can be argued that it is more likely not to be a body for cooling the passion of the people, but rather more responsive to the wants and desires of the people.

Yes, Wilson was an advocate of good government, but as America’s first true political scientist, he wanted good government that was responsive to the needs of the people and that was honest.  But he was also Southern by birth, indoctrinated with belief of individual rights and freedoms; impulses which conflicted with his upbringing as a dour Calvinist Presbyterian.  But he was a conservative progressive and only expanded the role of government when he thought it was right and proper.

If Beck wants to be critical of progressivism, he must point his finger not at Wilson but rather towards Theodore Roosevelt.  It was Roosevelt, not Wilson who expanded the reach of the Federal Government into industry and the financial sector, who used anti-trust prosecutions to rein in the worsed excesses of the industry, who wanted to ensure that the working man had protection from the excesses of the capitalist motive which sacrificed safety and working conditions for profit.

The real excesses of progressivism are those aspects, which have undermined the proper functioning of representative government.  One only has to look to California to see the effects of rampant democracy—democracy that does not consider the second and third orders of the impact of initiatives.  The tyranny of the ballot initiative has tied the hands of the Executive and Legislative in finding prudent fiscal solutions to the problems of the state.

The primary for selecting candidates for elected office has encouraged in recent years the domination of the extremes of both parties.  The net result is that good men and women who would add to out ability to govern prudently, are excluded, as they are viewed as not sufficiently orthodox.

But Beck, is expressing the frustration that is felt by many, that government has become too scientific, too bureaucratic, and therefore unresponsive to the needs of the people.  Progressivism has a bad name, because on the whole, we as a nation have forgotten why the progressive impulse flourished.  Instead we have allowed an educated Pied Piper to lead us down a road of ignorance, half-truths, and faulty understanding resulting in misplaced anger.

So What Does This All Mean:

In many ways this is a revolt against elites.  Elites who dominate American government, in both parties, elites whose pedigree is defined by their attendance at one of the prestigious universities of the United States; whether it be Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford or any other of the top universities.  The implicit message, if you are a graduate of a state university (except perhaps the University of Virginia, University of Michigan, or William & Mary) do not apply there is no room in government positions.  Nowhere is this more obvious that the Supreme Court of the United States, where every justice is a graduate of either Harvard or Yale Law School.  This reality is hardly representative of America.  Our last four Presidents all have been either undergraduates or graduate students at the so called elite universities.[9]

The Tea Party is the latest in a long line of Populists movements which at various at time in American History have risen from within the ranks of the people to challenge those in power.  Whether it was Jefferson (a Virginia aristocrat with plebian sentiments), Jackson (a plebian from the frontier who became an aristocrat), William Jennings Bryan (a plebian from the heartland), or George Wallace (a plebian from Southland) they became the voice of the people who feared the concentration of power in the hands of elites; be it the silk-stocking elites of the Federalist party; the Mid-Atlantic elites and the Bank of United States; the corporate elites who were destined to keep the common man down; or rebelling against the spoiled elites who were weakening America by supporting Civil Rights and protesting against Vietnam.

The message of the Tea Party has resonated most loudly within the Republican party.  It has strengthened the hand of conservatives who are determined to ensure that President Obama is a one term President.[10] For independents their faith in the message of Obama in 2008 of change has been dashed by the liberalism of the Democratic Party in the House.  To independents that represent the voice of moderation, neither Party is representing their voice.  In fact it can be argued that the voices of moderation in both parties will be unemployed after the election on November 2nd and it will be the extremes both liberal and conservative that define the two national parties.  We may be seeing the third act of the dissolution of the American two Party system; and like the other two acts we may see the disappearance of one of the two parties and from the ashes of that party see the emergence of a new American political party representing the voice of most Americans, a voice mildly conservative eschewing extremes.  Only time will tell the long-term influence of the Tea Party and what it portends for nation.


[1] The following terms are being provided as a means of helping the reader.  Conservatus (Latin):  keep safe/intact| save (from danger); preserve| maintain; spare; keep/observe.

Conservative:  1.  Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

Conservation:  1.  The act of conserving; prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss; preservation: conservation of wildlife; conservation of human rights.  2.  Official supervision of rivers, forests, and other natural resources in order to preserve and protect them through prudent management.  3.  A district, river, forest, etc., under such supervision.  4.  The careful utilization of a natural resource in order to prevent depletion.  5.  The restoration and preservation of works of art.

Līberālis:  honorable; courteous| well bred| gentlemanly; liberal; generous

Liberal:  1.  favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.  2.  (often initial capital letter) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.  3.  of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism.  4.  favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.  5.  favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.  6.  of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.  7.  free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.  8.  open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.  9.  characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor.  10.  given freely or abundantly; generous: a liberal donation.  11.  not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.  12.  of, pertaining to, or based on the liberal arts.  13.  of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman.

Libertarian:  1.  a person who advocates liberty, esp. with regard to thought or conduct.  2.  a person who maintains the doctrine of free will.

Ayn Rand:  1905-82, American writer, b. St. Petersburg, Russia.  Her novels are romantic, dramatic, and often didactic, espousing a philosophy built on a muscular capitalism, aggressive individualism, and a rational self-interest that opposes the collective nature of the modern welfare state and totalitarian societies.  [S]he summarized her philosophy, which she called “objectivism”; it posits a concrete external reality, idea-driven emotions, and self-interest as ethical ideal.  Her works have had a notable influence on many of America’s political and economic conservatives.

Collectivus:  proceeding by inference; deductive; gathered together (L+S); collective.

Collective:  1.  formed by collection.  2.  forming a whole; combined: the collective assets of a corporation and its subsidiaries.  3.  of or characteristic of a group of individuals taken together: the collective wishes of the membership.  4.  organized according to the principles of collectivism: a collective farm.

Communitas:  partnership| joint possession/use/participation; fellowship; community| kinship.

Community:  1. a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.  2. a locality inhabited by such a group.  3. a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists (usually prec. by the ): the business community; the community of scholars.  4. a group of associated nations sharing common interests or a common heritage: the community of Western Europe.  5. Ecclesiastical . a group of men or women leading a common life according to a rule.  6. Ecology . an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area.  7. joint possession, enjoyment, liability, etc.: community of property.  8. similar character; agreement; identity: community of interests.  9. the community, the public; society: the needs of the community.

[3] Issac Kramnick editor, The Portable Edmund Burke, Penguin Books: New York, 1999, pg XVI.

[4] Edmund Burke. BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc, 2010. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/edmundburk166515.html, accessed June 9, 2010.

[5] If this happens he will join Jimmy Carter and Herbert Hoover in the President’s club of failed economic expectations.

[6] The one exception to this might be Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma, although he is such a pain in the side of his own party that he has trouble influencing the actions of the current Republican minority.

[8] I use this term to describe the various political pundits who sit around and second guess everyone, a good example of this type is Chris Mathews and Bill O’Reilly.

[9] Bush 41—Yale; Clinton—Georgetown and Yale Law School; Bush 43—Yale; Obama—Columbia and Harvard Law.

[10] See http://nationaljournal.com/magazine/after-the-wave-20101023?page=1 ‘“Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful,” McConnell told National Journal in his first extensive interview about his aspirations for the Senate Republicans of the 112th Congress. “We need to work smarter than we did [in 1995], and not become the foil off which [President Obama] pivots.”’

 

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