Fruit cakes at tea time

Stone the crows! It looks like tea party time at next week’s American elections, with radical Republicans, who knocked off old guard GOP people in the primaries, ready to wreak havoc on depressed Democrats.

But while everybody assumes the Tea Party has arrived nobody really knows what it stands for. Expect it isn’t sorcery, with movement maven Christine O’Donnell saying she is not now, nor never has been a witch – which is good to have cleared up.[i]

According to Howard “I had a scream” Dean Tea Party people resemble his supporters in the 2004 Democrat primaries who feared big business, They both share “a real desire to have power come back to the people”.[ii]

Dean is over-doing it. According to the Pew Institute, Tea Partiers are Republicans by another name. Among registered voters some 56 per cent of Republicans say they agree with the Tea Party, compared to just 6 per cent of Democrats, while independents who intend to vote are much more evenly divided (39 per cent pro to 26 per cent anti). [iii]

But dismissing Tea Party supporters as just Republicans with their dander up misses the point. For a start, it’s like assuming the Hansonites were just holidaying from their permanent party allegiance and did not have their own collection of complaints, however incoherent. And it ignores the implications of the protest movement’s name.

The Tea (taxed enough already) Party references a 1773 Boston protest against East India Company tea imports. The tea was cheap, but came with a duty levelled by the British Government, which most of Massachusetts did not believe was legitimately levied, what with taxation without representation being tyranny.

The present lot are not the first political cause to claim the mantle of the original tea partiers, which is a valuable franchise less because of the morally ambiguous mob action in 1773 than because it was a step towards the Declaration of Independence.

As Benjamin Carp puts it, in the first full-length study of the original Tea Party in a generation, the struggle to own its legacy:

…has taken various guises throughout the intervening centuries. … Not every group that has invoked the Tea Party has done so with historical accuracy: commentators and protestors tend to gloss over the real story of the event in favour of their own causes. [iv]

Given Australian indifference to past politics it is easy to assume this is a political parlour game for History Channel fans. For all their talk about American values, prominent partiers do not have much of an idea about what their forefathers, sorry persons, thought. Ms O’Donnell made a mug of herself when she was surprised to discover that the godless idea of that the government could not protect Christian values was enshrined in the constitution.[v]

But O’Donnell’s colleagues are keen to claim they are keepers of the flame of freedom lit in the American Revolution, which ensures their opponents are equally anxious to ping the protestors as recreating reactionary aspects of politics past.

As Jill Lepore puts it; “The debate over sovereignty and liberty that took place between 1764 and 1791 contains an ocean of ideas. You can fish almost anything out of it.” [vi]

According to Peter Berkowitz, the Tea Partiers’ appalled response to endless spending by Washington makes them the heirs of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist Papers, who made the case for a national government, but one with limited powers finely balanced between the legislature and executive. [vii] Others argue they are the heirs of Andrew Jackson, the president Democrats once adored for his bank-bashing, populist patriotism and enmity towards political insiders.

But while Jefferson-Jackson day dinners are still Democrat fund raisers, the Crows suspect there is more emphasis now on Tom than on Andy, given Jackson’s misuse of executive authority to remove the Cherokee population of southeast frontier states in the 1830s. His justification of the policy – “it will place a dense and civilised population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters” – may have worked in 1830 and for the next century, but it is a bit rich to assume all the Tea Partiers are Jacksonian white supremacists.[viii]

Which is how the new play Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, about Jackson, is being interpreted:

… this show is really about the moment America went off the rails. Andrew Jackson was the first major American political figure whose career was based on building that fake kind of class resentment that predominates today. … Jackson hated the people in Washington (and Indians and blacks) and got his followers to believe that the only thing standing in the way of “their taking their country back” was by replacing the old political order with people whose sole qualification for office was hating the existing order. [ix]

Other commentators suggest Tea Party types are obsessively suspicious of the state, condemning Lincoln, for increasing federal government power during the Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt for trust busting and consumer protection laws a half century later, and don’t get them going on Franklin and the New Deal.[x]

Of course under this model the ancestors of today’s opponents of the big party state are the Confederacy, the oil, steel and railway oligopolies that TR took on and Herbert Hoover.

You pays your money and you picks your period of history. But to understand how the Tea Partiers see themselves, it is best to accept their own choice of inspiration, the collection of labourers, tradesmen and small merchants who threw the British tea into Boston Harbour in 1773 and the political operators anxious, to escalate the confrontation with the imperial government, who egged them on.

The motives of the political machine men who orchestrated the original tea party were a good deal more complex than the popular version allows. But the men who tipped the tea into the harbour were ordinary blokes who were damned if they would pay a tax they did not approve of and were confident in their ability to take on a distant government they despised.

Which is what the Tea Party foot soldiers think now. Mark Lilla calls then “antipolitical Jacobins” who distrust institutions but have “an astonishing and unwarranted confidence in the self”. [xi]

A confidence that allows them to assume they can reduce the US public debt while kick starting the economy, presumably without taking away any of the generous welfare benefits older middle class Americans (who tend to be Tea Partiers) enjoy. And a confidence that no one is a wake up that their appeal to history is nonsense. For a start, George III’s chief minister Lord North wore a wig and Barack Obama does not. The Crows could go on for quite a while with other differences, but you get the point.

The Tea Parties will too. Perhaps not at next week’s election, where candidates they support will likely do well. But sooner rather than later it will be obvious that what worked in Boston in 1773 does not work in Washington now.


[i] Associated Press, “O’Donnell makes light of witchcraft comment,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 20

[ii] David S Morgan, Dean: Tea Partiers are a lot like my supporters”, CBS News, October 17 recovered on October 23

[iii] Pew Centre, “Independents oppose people in power … again”, September 23 @ recovered on October 23

[iv] Benjamin L Carp, Defiance of the Patriot: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of an America (Yale University Press, 2010) 232

[v] Guardian News and Media, “Please explain: candidate’s big gaffe”, Sydney Morning Herald, October 21

[vi] Jill Lepore, “Tea and sympathy: Who owns the American Revolution?” The New Yorker, May 3

[vii] Peter Berkowitz, “Why liberals don’t get the tea party movement” The Wall Street Journal, October 16

[viii] “President Jackson’s annual message to Congress, 1830” @ Recovered on 23 October

[ix] M J Rosenberg, “On Broadway: Bloody Bloody Andy Jackson all about 2010 election”  Huffington Post, October 18 @ recovered on 23 October

[x] Michael Gerson, “TR: The conservatives’ new demon,” The Washington Post, February 26

[xi] Mark Lilla, “The Tea Party Jacobins”, The New York Review of Books, May 27