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 anal
ysts 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, hypervigilant, paranoid ultraright 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 protÃ©gÃ© 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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Don’t they understand that the government is our friend?
Could the Tea Party be a resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan in politics? If you look at their ideology and that of the Klan, they’re very similar. Thanks for the article. Let’s reveal the real Tea Party.
For what itâ€™s worth, Wikipedia agrees with your number but as I suspected it refers to the entire US debt in 1980â€“not the deficit. So Iâ€™m off by a factor of 2 and a bit, not ten, and you donâ€™t know the meaning of the words â€œdeficitâ€ and â€œtotal debtâ€.
Note above I very clearly referred to the entire federal debt as being something like 400 billion: â€œI remind you that when Jimmy Carter left office the entire US debt was less than four hundred billion dollars.â€
So my entire point still stands, even if I was wrong about 4 instead of 9.
So reexamine your point, and check a dictionary again.
Peace, Brother, we’re both off topic here.
Congratulations you’ve knocked down a straw man!!! The tea party is an organized movement that stands for individual rights and limited government. The south during pre-civil war times didn’t believe in a government that protects individual rights they didn’t support individual rights at all. You can’t if you support the evil immoral right violating institution of slavery. I don’t claim to speak for all tea partiers but this tea party Republican believes we need to limit the function of government to individual rights protection. That seems very extreme to people that believe in the unlimited government that we have now but I think the founders would by joining the party, the Tea Party that is.
I voted for Barack Obama in a southern state. I got in line a few minutes after the polls opened, and there were already hundreds ahead of me. I was the only nominally “white” guy. It crossed my mind that they probably thought I was a Republican. The long lines and the long wait (almost five hours) were obviously the desired outcome of voter suppression tactics. There were mostly women, very few working age men, and many gave up and left before casting their votes. As an old guy, I could hardly endure another election like that myself. But I overheard a conversation that bewildered me. It concerned an issue that should have been of paramount importance to the well-being of the population with whom I stood in line. “No Ma’am, not here, not over my dead body. Not here in the Bible Belt!” It was a proud declaration of determination to vote against her own benefits.
People happily vote against their own best interests. People vote for things like “Right to Work” laws because they think “rights” are important. The words are carefully contrived. Those same people would happily vote for “states’ rights”, because, after all, rights are important. We speak of “outsourcing”, but nobody realizes that means layoffs. We speak of “urban renewal”, but nobody equates that to homeless people. “Privatization” means stealing public property, and “deregulation” means that stealing is legal. “Tax reform” is a constant chorus to lower taxes. If the rich pay too much, after all, they won’t invest and they won’t create jobs. So, we keep cutting taxes. I guess the rich just aren’t rich enough yet. There’s still no new job growth.
John Stossel did a piece on the FED (Federal Reserve), revealing that even educated middle class white people didn’t know what it is. For you educated, middle class white people reading this, it’s a PRIVATE banking cartel that lends the government money in return for interest. Your taxes pay back those loans with interest. We are still paying off the bill for World War One, with compounding interest. Your government does not want you to know that. So instead, they talk about the “national debt” as though it was caused by Social Security and education and unemployment benefits and Medicare. It wasn’t. They’ve been borrowing from Social Security too, but they’re not planning to pay that back. Instead, they’re planning to cut your benefits with an accounting fraud called “Chained CPI”.
John Stossel’s conclusion was that we need to consider “austerity”. That means cutting benefits. He also concluded that we need to raise the retirement age. That means more unemployment for the young. He never mentioned raising taxes. Alan Greenspan, that esteemed economic charlatan that used to run the FED just published a new book all the rich people will soon be reading. It’s called, “The Map and the Territory”. A famous semanticist wrote a lengthy treatise on the dishonest use of language. He is likely to have influenced George Orwell significantly. His most famous quote: “The map is not the territory”.
Don’t expect things to get better. These people are following a map to nowhere. Rich people gave them the map for free. It was a lot cheaper than paying taxes. And the people are truly grateful.
The Federal Reserve may be private, however it is not at all clear that it is for profit.
Right now it is indeed the biggest holder of US tbills, then comes the Social Security Adim, but what the Federal Reserve does with that interest is unclear–also unclear where the Federal Reserve gets the monies or credit to buy up US Treasury debts.
So you raise a perfectly interesting point, but not one of these questions is going to be answered by the likes of John Stossel.
And it is not at all clear that the US is still paying off the debt from World War Two. I remind you that when Jimmy Carter left office the entire US debt was less than four hundred billion dollars. So again don’t simply go with Stossel’s simplicities, he makes up things all the time.
There’s a much documented “libertarian” paranoia about the Federal Reserve. Some even claim that the Titanic was sunk to allow the Fed to come into existence. The problem with all of these arguments was that until that time say in 1890, all sorts of private banks were making monies themselves, and lending it to the guvmint amongst others.
So ultimately the question isn’t what is the Federal Reserve or Citibank, but what is a financial instrument. (Note I didn’t say: “What is money”, nor is the answer the simplistic “libertarian”: Gold.)
I’m not real smart, but I’m pretty sure you’re confusing the Federal Deficit with the National Debt.
The United States has run a continuous public debt since the US Constitution was ratified in 1789, except for one year, which I think was 1836. So, the books have really never been balanced. Public Debt as a percentage of GDP has consistently increased since the Nixon administration, except during the Carter and Clinton presidencies. The government prefers to report debt as a percentage of GDP rather than GNP, because GNP is GDP minus the trade deficit. Since the 1970’s, vast segments of U.S. industrial production has been shifted to China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico and India. We have a massive negative trade imbalance. If figured against real economic progress, the debt is a lot worse than it looks. According to a retrospective Brookings Institute study published in 1998 by the Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Committee, the total expenditures for U.S. nuclear weapons from 1940 to 1998 was $5.5 trillion in 1996 Dollars. The total public debt at the end of fiscal year 1998 was $5.3 trillion in 1996 Dollars. The entire public debt in 1998 was therefore attributable to U.S. nuclear weapons and related programs during the Cold War. Today, at $17 trillion, the debt is three times that great, and most of it directly attributable to Bush administration wars and their continuation under the present administration. As of 2010, approximately 72% of the financial assets were held by the wealthiest 5% of the population. Consequently only a fraction of the people in future generations will receive principal or interest from investments related to the debt incurred by the government today.The budget has occasionally been balanced, but there has never, ever been a “payoff” of the national debt. So, the rich have developed a self-perpetuating fountain of tax-free money from which only they can drink. It’s the interest on the national debt, and we carry their water by giving them tax cuts.
Nope, not confusing debt with annual deficit.
The point remains that the entire US debt was less than half a trillion dollars in January 1981. (I believe the deficit was on the order of $100 billion.)
I made no comment about the debt or deficit as a fraction of the GDP, why bring it up? If you think my number is wrong, find a source you can double check my point with. And don’t raise an over long distraction.
I couldn’t find a figure for 1981, but in 1980, it was $907.7 billion. So, you’re only off by a factor (not an increment) of ten. Propaganda prefers sound bites and slogans. That’s why disinformation specialists and propagandists always refer to accurate explanations as “over long distractions”. Kinda like referring to a claim that the Olympic and not the Titanic actually sunk to create the Federal Reserve…
Really when did something like a debt of four hundred billion become one tenth of nine hundred billion? If Iâ€™m off and your number for 1980 is correct the factor would be about 2. Please check basic multiplication facts before making silly assertions. So until you can check in reality, I stand by my comment that the entire debt when Carter left office was on the order of four hundred billion dollars. I will not be â€œcorrectedâ€ by someone making the claim that 4 times 10 equals 9. (NB: 4 x 10=40.)
Then before you raise the debt versus deficit thing in error again: Annual US deficits only exceeded one thousand billion (1 trillion) in something like the last 10 years. So donâ€™t claim to have been making a comment about the deficit, which was on the order of 100 billion when Carter left office.
Look itâ€™s not like Iâ€™ve never posted a comment in error or garbled something but this is a big mistake you made with the â€œfactor of tenâ€ thing. And the problem is itâ€™s such a big mistake that a correct you post probably canâ€™t be trusted.
Check, recheck, and recheck your sources, use a dictionary, and then post whatever you think the correct number is, but look up â€œfactorâ€ too.
Yaj, please look at your comment above and read what you wrote.. It says, “I believe the deficit was on the order of $100 billion.” I replied that the 1980 figure was $907.6 billion, which is roughly ten times the figure you wrote. Are you writing a term paper or something? There’s this important step called “proof-reading”. Try it sometime.
As I made clear the deficit in 1980 was NOT one trillion dollars. Pay attention. The entire federal budget in 1980 wasn’t a trillion dollars.
It is you who have serious reading comprehension problems. As I predicted above you’ve raised the debt versus deficit thing in error.
Yet again, since you didn’t read it the first time: The deficit only became a trillion annually very recently.
In fact your trillion dollar claim for 1980 is not identified but for reasons clear above it must refer the the debt not deficit.
I claim about half that, however you claim that half is one tenth.
You clearly haven’t looked up the word “factor” yet.
Now I think that what you may have done is confuse the budget for 1980 with the budget deficit, work it out.
“Theyâ€™ve been borrowing from Social Security too, but theyâ€™re not planning to pay that back. Instead, theyâ€™re planning to cut your benefits with an accounting fraud called â€œChained CPIâ€.”
The less polite term would be “stealing” from SSâ€¦.
“follows the Slave Southâ€™s hostility to the strong federal government that the Framers created.” ?
The good old days when the good Christian folks would go to Sunday Service & watch or participate in a Lynching on the way home afterwards.
The tea party acts as it does, like the coiled rattlesnake, because their real symbol is the ostrich.
If Tom Cruz & his fellow Texans really want to Secede from the Union. This time
they should not be stopped. Let them declare their independence. And let this independence prevent the rest of the nation from defending them the time when Santa Ana’s descendants attack the Alamo.
Ah yes: Texas the Republic of Scientology.
But more seriously:
Where would Austin go?
And have you ever been in New Hampshire or rural Pennsylvania, or remember Michelle Bachmann comes for a congressional district just outside of the Twin Cities.
Or from a different tack: The Hawaiian island of Kauai was not part of the Oahu centered kingdom the US took over during the Spanish/American war, so why then is Kauai part of the US? (Yeah, I get it, the US army and navy took over the entire chain of islands in the 1920s and that’s why the whole island chain was made a state.)
So this “let them secede” thing is deeply problematic and shows a deep misunderstanding of the USA.