Part of me wants to like the Tea Party movement. After all, for an American historian, a group that looks to American history for inspiration is at least showing some of the correct instincts.
Reading an account in the local newspaper about the Tea Party meeting in Boiling Springs, SC, I found a few things that seemed in the spirit of the Sons of Liberty from the early 1770s: for example, a casket with a sign saying "Life, liberty and property" and "Rest in Peace." That sounds like something the Sons of Liberty would have liked.
Many observers, including the president, have pointed out the irony of the anti-tax protests on tax day given the fact that for most people, their taxes have not increased, and in fact have gone down. But in reading up on the original Tea Party, I found that the Tea Act, which led to the dumping of the tea in Boston Harbor, also did not raise the tax on tea. What it did was reassert Parliament's right to tax the colonists, and that's what prompted the protest. So there's actually a nice parallel there.
The Boiling Springs protest made references to tyrannical government, of course, and certainly the rabble-rousers of 1773 did that too. But that's ultimately where today's Tea Partiers go wrong. One Republican precinct leader from here in Spartanburg said: "We are faced today with a tyrannical government that is going to tax us, tax our children, forever."
Note the offense--taxing, in and of itself, is tyrannical. Anyone with even the most superficial understanding of the American Revolution should know that the dispute the American colonists had with the government back in London was not that governmental taxation was tyranny. The catch phrase was, of course, "No taxation without representation." For today's Tea Party supporters, however, that last part is strangely missing--or perhaps not so strangely. To remember that the crux of the disagreement in the 1770s was having a voice in how you were taxed is to demolish the source of today's outrage. These are people angry that they are taxed. This is a political temper tantrum. Their argument is not with the process, but with the outcome. Their anger springs not from a lack of a voice in government, but from their perception that they have not gotten their way.
This is a profoundly anti-democratic sentiment, one that has become far too common in conservative circles in the last 20 years. The essence of democracy is commitment to the process, not the outcome. One of the Tea Party protesters captured this outcome-oriented perspective perfectly: "The message is 'Remember in November.' We have to take this country back, and if we don't do it by the end of 2010, it's a lost cause." Aside from the alarmist and apocalyptic tone, so far so good: you have a grievance, so you engage in the process, you organize and vote. But what he said next revealed the fundamental (and frightening) flaw in his thinking: "I'm not calling people to arms, yet. But that may be what it comes down to at the end of 2010."
This man's view of democracy is entirely tied to results. If the mid-term elections in the fall produce a result he likes, great. If not, it may be time to take up arms. This is an alarmingly corrosive concept, one that reveals a basic misunderstanding of the American system of government. In this warped view, tyranny is defined by one's political opponents being in the majority. Losing an election becomes a cause for armed rebellion.
I don't take this person seriously, nor do I take seriously the idea of armed rebellion. But the man's words do reveal something seriously wrong at the heart of this movement. An ostensibly serious candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in South Carolina, Attorney General Henry McMaster, also spoke to the rally, and compared the federal government to America's cold war opponent: "We fought the Soviet Union. But ladies and gentlemen, the enemy is now in the room. The enemy is in Washington, D.C."
This is terribly irresponsible rhetoric. Comparing our own government to that of the Soviet Union is beyond the normal hyperbole we expect in politics. Calling our duly-elected government "tyrannical" is absurd and, even worse, dangerous. In another rally, Rep. Michelle Bachmann continued to discredit herself and this movement by referring to the "gangster government" in Washington. As former president Bill Clinton rightly noted, "They are not gangsters. They were elected. They are not doing anything they were not elected to do."
Unfortunately, for this uninformed and undemocratic movement of self-described "patriots," that's sin enough.