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Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 18, 2011: Why We’re Here, Tea Party Edition

There are two entirely distinct, and in some ways even opposed, ways to interpret the name “Tea Party” (for the contemporary political organization, not the thing in Boston Harbor). The more “official,” or at least more widely disseminated and accepted, narrative is that the organization represents a grassroots, non- or widely bi-partisan rebellion against taxation, spending, and other forms of government interference; evidence for this narrative would include TEA serving as an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, the first organized protests occurring on or around April 15th (Tax Day) of 2009, and a variety of other symbolic statements of libertarian resistance to government. In this narrative, the organization’s likewise symbolic use of a historical event (that Harbor thing) is meant as a direct parallel, another occasion on which put-upon citizens, fed up with taxation and government interference in their lives, rebelled and helped begin a revolution (hence the references, for example, to Tea Party favorite Scott Brown’s senatorial victory in Massachusetts as “The Scott Heard ‘Round the World”).
That vision of the historical Tea Party is certainly over-simplified, neglecting for example the event’s substantial component of mob violence, but the real historical problem here is to my mind significantly deeper and more subtle. As historian Jill Lepore (among others) has thoroughly documented, the Tea Party has depended on Founding-era symbols and rhetoric for far more than just its name, has in fact utilized Revolutionary reenactors and costumes, Founders’ quotes and perspectives, and any and all other references to this historical era in constructing many of its overarching narratives, positions, and events. These historical references have often been, like the libertarian impulses, narrated as something bipartisan, broadly American, nationally shared: a desire to respect the Constitution, to live up to the ideals of Washington and Jefferson, to be the city on a hill, and so on. But I would argue precisely the opposite, that it is in their historical vision that the Tea Partiers reveal most explicitly their profoundly conservative and extreme perspective, an embrace of the traditional, Christian historical narrative that is as full-throated and mythologized as any our national discourse has ever witnessed.
I have believed that to be the case of the majority of Tea Partiers since the movement’s origins, but a recently released, five-year-long study of American political attitudes by two political scientists—many of the relevant results of which are discussed in the article at the first link—goes a long way toward quantifying that belief. Of the study’s many findings that could be marshaled in support of my prior paragraph’s last sentence, I will quote just the most salient one: “Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.” I would take that statement one step further and argue, based on virtually every relevant statement and utterance and fact (such as the hugely prominent role that Glenn Beck and his favorite American “historian” David Barton, on whom see for example here, here, and here, have played in the Tea Party’s rise), that Tea Partiers believe that religion, and more specifically of course Christianity, played precisely such a prominent role in our government at its origin, just as they believe that America was from its origins centrally defined by white, Anglo, Christian, English-speaking inhabitants. This historical vision, encapsulated succinctly and thoroughly in the battle cry “I want my country back!,” is to my mind the most overarching narrative at the heart of the Tea Party’s identity and aims.
The real problem here is not that our media narratives of the Tea Party have tended to minimize this historical emphasis in favor of the small government one; it’s that as wrong as the Tea Partiers are about many of their economic beliefs (such as that Obama has raised all of their taxes), they are more profoundly mistaken still about American identity, both on the specific issue of religion and government and on the broader questions of our communal composition. I dedicated my whole second book to making that case, and so the seven “Book Posts” here (available under that category to the right), as well as these two “Meta-Posts,” elaborate my contrasting take on American identity. Here I’ll just stress that, of all the reasons to counter the Tea Party’s influence on American politics and culture, this historical one might just be the most serious and crucial. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A New York Times article on the study:
2)      Gordon Wood’s review of Lepore’s book The Whites of Their Eyes; Wood takes a more favorable view of the Tea Party’s use of history than do I, or at least treats it as one among many such uses more than I would:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?
4)    UPDATE: A very relevant and very revealing piece by a woman who has been a part of the Tea Party movement for its whole existence:

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ben

    I think it's interesting that a big part of this issue is the evoking of nationalist feelings through mythological symbols (i.e. the Boston tea party) in order to obscure some hidden ugliness. It becomes more and more apparent to me that we live in a world of semiotics; people are governed by symbols, and more importantly how they decipher those symbols.

    I'm the first to admit that my knowledge about politics is limited, but I know a rotten apple when I see one. That rotten apple may have dubbed itself "The Freedom Loving God Fruit!", but it's still rotten.