For “branding” purposes, the Tea Party pretends to reflect the views of the Constitution’s Framers but it actually follows the Slave South’s hostility to the strong federal government that the Framers created. That historical link to the Confederacy is crucial for understanding the Tea Party’s goals, as Beverly Bandler explains.
By Beverly Bandler
The political movement known as the Tea Party (a historically distorted label derived from the famous 1773 anti-British protest in Boston) is not a structured, accountable political party with a constructive, coherent agenda based on any recognized economic or social principles. It is even devoid of any real historical frame of reference, although some analysts have likened the Tea Party obstructionist tactics to the behavior of the pro-slavery South before the Civil War.
Historian Garry Wills, for instance, notes how some Tea Party activists and politicians “do not recognize laws and Supreme Court decisions, or constitutional guarantees of free speech.” Some states under the sway of the Tea Party have blocked the work of “navigators” assigned to help people obtain health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, or have prohibited health centers from advising women about their abortion rights, or have restricted voting in defiance of constitutional and federal protections.
“The people behind these efforts are imitating what the Confederate States did even before they formally seceded in 1861,” Wills wrote recently. “Already they ran a parallel government, in which the laws of the national government were blatantly disregarded. They denied the right of abolitionists to voice their arguments, killing or riding out of town over three hundred of them in the years before the Civil War. They confiscated or destroyed abolitionist tracts sent to Southern states by United States mail. In the United States Congress, they instituted ‘gag rules’ that automatically tabled (excluded from discussion) anti-slavery petitions, in flagrant abuse of the First Amendment’s right of petition.
“The Southern states were able to live in such open disregard for national law because … the national Democratic-Republican Party needed the Southern part of its coalition so badly that it colluded with the Southern states’ violations of the Constitution. In 1835, for instance, President Andrew Jackson did not enforce the sacredness of the US mail, allowing states to refuse delivery of anti-slave mailings unless a recipient revealed his identity, requested delivery, and had his name published for vilification.
“Just as the Old South compelled the national party to shelter its extremism, today’s Tea Party leaders make Republicans toe their line. Most Republicans do not think laws invalid because the president is a foreign-born Muslim with a socialist agenda. But they do not renounce, or even criticize, their partners who think that. The rare Republican who dares criticize a Rush Limbaugh is quickly made to repent and apologize. John Boehner holds the nation hostage because the Tea Party holds him hostage.”
A Mouse That Roared
Yet, the Tea Party is a relatively small movement, drawn from the estimated 10 percent of Americans who make up the Far Right – defined as the overwrought, hyper–vigilant, paranoid ultra–right wing authoritarians, the “True Believers.” Another 20 percent of Americans are considered conservative by temperament but usually hew closer to the political center-right, keeping some distance from the wild-eyed ultra-right.
Though this less radical faction is a bit more tethered to reality, it will embrace hard-right conservatism under extreme social or economic stress, such as the confluence of the Great Recession of 2008 and the recognition that America’s demographic changes are creating a more diverse and less white country. The radicalization of some from the center-right also has been influenced by the sheer political momentum of the Tea Party, which is viewed as the right-wing faction that is “standing up” to Barack Obama, the first African-American president.
Thus, this “swing” group of more moderate conservatives has been actively decoupling itself from the center-right GOP mainstream and creating a worrisome super-right-wing faction that is capable of destabilizing the governing of the United States. As we’ve seen in recent weeks with the federal government shutdown and the threatened credit default, this Tea Party-driven movement can neutralize the interests of the 70 percent of Americans who comprise what is characterized as the rational, moderate majority, ranging from the center to left of center.
For John Dean, a former Republican and White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, the Tea Party “conservatives” are not conservative in any traditional sense but rather a group of rash and radical authoritarians – the “same old authoritarian conservatives with a new label … a notoriously nasty crew … delighted with … the chaos they have created … [who] actively work to screw up federal government in the hope of literally destroying it.”
Indeed, the Tea Partiers repudiate what political conservatism has meant historically. “True conservatism is cautious and prudent,” writes Dean, who has described himself as a Goldwater conservative.
Traditional conservatives are not on some social mission to create a “Christian America,” nor are they so extreme that they would use a threatened default on the national debt to extract ideological concessions. The vitriol directed at Barack Obama also is unprecedented to many longtime political observers. Many Tea Partiers insist that Obama has no right to be president, calling him a Muslim, a foreigner, a gangster, a fascist, a communist, the anti-Christ.
For writer Gary Kamiya, Tea Party Republicans are comparable to wailing babies, “disturbingly infantile,” a group that has “reverted to a pre-potty-trained state.” The infantilism is underscored by Tea Partiers dressing up in period costumes with tea bags hanging from their heads. And there is something not only infantile but destructive when the Tea Partiers confuse the cause of liberty from the Revolutionary War with the cause of pre-Civil War slavery as it was rationalized across the South behind extra-constitutional theories of states’ rights and nullificationism.
Kamiya reminds us that historian Richard Hofstadter traced the long tradition of irrational, conspiratorial and paranoid thinking in America history. Yet, Hofstader’s work is a chilling reminder that the right-wing was considered mostly marginal a half century ago but has since entered the mainstream propelled by a confusing (and often contradictory) mix of fundamentalist Christianity, fear of the Other, unfettered capitalism and unchecked libertarianism.
Author Sarah Robinson argues that Southern conservatives have blended their nostalgia for Plantation America with the narcissistic selfishness of Ayn Rand who “updated the ancient slaveholder ethic for the modern age,” i.e. the Old South’s concept of personal “liberty” as a force that justified slave-ownership and was divorced from any societal good.
“The Tea Party became the voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it forward into the 21st century with its full measure of selfishness, racism, superstition, and brutality intact,” Robinson wrote. “From its origins in the fever swamps of the lowland south, the worldview of the old Southern aristocracy can now be found nationwide.”
An Anarchic Mob
The Tea Party acts like an anarchic, “libertarian mob” that appears to define “liberty” as a “divine right to do whatever we damn well please” and that finds all expertise and authority (the paradox of authoritarianism) inherently suspect and who believe the so-called “elites” – historians, constitutional lawyers, economists, political scientists and teachers – can’t possibly know anything worthwhile. The Tea Partiers reveal not only a profound ignorance but an extraordinary arrogance.
Commenting on American culture, author Isaac Asimov once said: ”Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”
English writer George Monbiot asks: “How did politics in the United States come to be dominated by people who make a virtue out of ignorance?… In the most powerful nation on Earth, 1 adult in 5 believes the sun revolves around the Earth; only 26 percent accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of U.S. voters cannot name the three branches of government.”
We Americans also appear to have made a virtue out of bad manners and coarse discourse. Yet, perhaps most threatening to a functioning democratic Republic, the worst elements of this ignorance and extremism, which were on the margins of society in the 1950s, have expanded into the mainstream. For the Tea Party and its unhappy, fearful sympathizers, belief trumps facts; government by extortion trumps the forming of a rational consensus; indeed verifiable facts and careful reasoning are suspect as some tell-tale sign of liberal elitism.
Tea Party leaders also have sold their followers on a false understanding of the U.S. Constitution and what the key Framers – the likes of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris – were trying to create.
The Framers despised the idea of states’ rights and were determined to concentrate governing power in the federal government. In other words, what the Tea Party leaders are selling their followers is a neo-Confederate interpretation of the Constitution that turns the document inside out.
“They don’t realize that the Constitution represented the most important assertion of central authority in American history,” writes investigative reporter Robert Parry, who notes that the Constitution must be understood in the context of the Articles of Confederation which it replaced. The Articles guided the new country starting in 1777 and granted broad authority to the 13 original states with only a weak national government, described as a “league of friendship.”
George Washington was among the fiercest of the critics of the Articles, having experienced their ineffectiveness firsthand while watching his Continental Army suffer when states reneged on promises of support. Virginian James Madison, then a protégé of Washington and a chief architect of the Constitution, saw the Articles “holding back the nation’s economic growth” and wanted to take the states from being dominant to “subordinately useful,” Parry wrote.
So, with the Articles of Confederation failing – and the young nation’s hard-won independence in danger – the Constitutional Convention met in secret in Philadelphia in 1787 and replaced the Articles with a new system that granted sweeping authority to the federal government, including to “provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” Congress was empowered to pass all laws deemed “necessary and proper” to carry out those powers.
That the Constitution centralized power was well understood at the time, prompting fierce opposition from so-called Anti-Federalists, who protested that the earlier system in which the states were independent and sovereign was being swept away. Some Southern slaveholders feared that the Constitution eventually would be used by the North to eradicate slavery. However, after a contentious ratification process in 1788, the Constitution became the law of the land.
Still, the political fight wasn’t over. In the decades that followed, Southern whites used their disproportionate clout – since they got to count their black slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation – to argue for what, in effect, was a reinterpretation of the Constitution as something more like what it had replaced, the Articles of Confederation, with states’ rights preeminent and the federal government tightly constrained.
The Tea Party has essentially convinced its followers that this slaveholders’ interpretation of the Constitution is what the Framers intended, but that’s simply distorted history, writes Parry.
Disinterest in History
The American Bar Association has pointed out that the image of education in civics, government and history as “dry, dull and irrelevant” was a product of the 1960s. Many of that decade’s rebellions were welcome (challenges to sterile conformity, bigotry, segregation, inequality, and double standards among them), but the marked deterioration of American education in general that is said to have begun then has had dire consequences.
While more people have attended higher grades, the quality of education has been characterized as low — many Americans are considered functionally illiterate. The United States has fallen to “average” in international education rankings, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, receiving scores around 500 on a scale that goes up to 1,000: 487 in math, 500 in reading and 502 in science. Lack of education about their own government and the nation’s history is clearly demonstrated in Tea Party rhetoric and activism.
The current crop of anti-government (and anti-institutional) libertarians appears to be a destructive combination of the Sixties’ version of anarchism and the Eighties’ “greed is good” selfishness with ample doses of narcissism reflective of both periods. In the process, much critical thinking has been lost.
Essayist and historian of ideas Mark Lilla describes the Tea Party as a makeshift “movement whose activists rage against ‘government’ and ‘the media,’ while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.”
For Lilla, it is “a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century.” We have a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobins, who have, he writes: “two classic American traits … blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing — and unwarranted — confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.”
Lilla views it as a new strain of populism that is “metastasizing before our eyes … estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century.”
But is the Tea Party really a new national “grassroots” movement as frequently portrayed by the mainstream media, or does it have national pretensions while being basically regional? There are those who describe it as essentially an extremist neo-Confederate movement.
Texas-born writer Michael Lind noted in 2011 that while there may be Tea Party sympathizers throughout the country, the House of Representatives Tea Party faction was overwhelmingly Southern in its origin, 63 percent that year. After the 2012 election, the Tea Party Caucus in Congress weakened, but it still has some 46 members in the 435-seat House of Representatives and six in the 100-seat Senate. Some 34 of those members come from the South or 65 percent of the total Tea Party Caucus.
“The fact that Tea Party conservatism speaks with a pronounced Southern drawl may have escaped the attention of the mainstream media, but it is obvious to members of Congress who have to try to work with these disproportionately-Southern fanatics,” Lind wrote two years ago.
There are also troubling parallels between the coercive tactics that the politicians from the Old South used in the decades before the Civil War and those employed by today’s Tea Partiers.
As Lind wrote, “From the earliest years of the American republic, white Southern conservatives when they have lost elections and found themselves in the political minority have sought to extort concession from national majorities by paralyzing or threatening to destroy the United States. … In 1861, the South tried to destroy the United States, rather than accept a legitimately elected president, Abraham Lincoln, whom it did not control.”
In Lind’s view, it’s clear that the Tea Party in Congress is merely the old Confederate Southern right-wing in new packaging. Even the Confederate battle flag makes regular appearances at Tea Party rallies, though for “branding” purposes the movement favors the Revolutionary War era’s yellow banner with a coiled snake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto.
Going to Extremes
Americans should understand that the GOP attempt to sabotage the Affordable Care Act was “unprecedented … well beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with fiduciary responsibility of governing,” according to congressional scholar Norman Ornstein.
In the recent government shutdown crisis instigated by the GOP (the cost of which has been estimated at $24 billion), the Democratic Party and, eventually, some moderate Republicans stood their ground and stood up for the Constitution.
In effect, the Tea Party Republicans were trying to rewrite the Constitution (again) and its principles of majority rule to give a determined Southern-based minority (themselves) the power to coerce the majority of elected officials into either scrapping a duly-enacted law or watching the economy be sabotaged (via a government shutdown and debt default).
Of course, polls show that many Republicans, especially moderates, reject the Tea Party and its radicalism. It’s also clearly true that many Southerners reject neo-Confederate hostility toward the federal government and see themselves as Americans first. The South also boasts many fine and respected scholars and educational institutions, and has a good number of progressive organizations.
But it’s time that rational Americans from the South and everywhere else recognize the threat from the Radical Right and its overlapping ideologies of Ayn Rand capitalism, Christian fundamentalism and neo-Confederate white supremacy – forces that are corrupting and crippling the nation’s political and economic system, while putting at risk the “general Welfare” of 317 million Americans.
As historian Garry Wills has noted, “The problem with modern Republicans is not fanaticism in the few but cowardice in the many, who let their fellows live in virtual secession from laws they disagree with.”
The madness must be ended. The nation has been paying a high price for the fanaticism of the few and cowardice of the many.
Beverly Bandler’s public affairs career spans some 40 years. Her credentials include serving as president of the state-level League of Women Voters of the Virgin Islands and extensive public education efforts in the Washington, D.C. area for 16 years. She writes from Mexico.
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