Commentary Magazine


How to Think About the Tea Party

On February 19, 2009, when the finance commentator Rick Santelli indulged in a rant against the newly unveiled “stimulus” bill on the CNBC cable network and called for a demonstration in Chicago modeled on the Boston Tea Party, he fired a shot heard round the country. Santelli’s diatribe was focused on the fact that Americans who had played by the rules, had saved much of what they had earned, and had paid their bills on time were being required to bail out fellow citizens who had gotten caught short in purchasing a domicile they could not afford or while speculating in real estate. In the weeks that followed, ordinary citizens spontaneously gathered in towns and cities across the continent to organize Tea Parties in protest against what they took to be an unjust redistribution of wealth from the industrious and the rational to the greedy and improvident.

The mainstream media treated them with contempt, and most Republicans kept their distance. Leading Democrats denounced them as frauds and ignoramuses and sought to brand them as racists. Even when the president of the United States used the obscene epithet “teabaggers” to refer to them, however, the adherents of what was coming to be a full-fledged movement—the Tea Party movement—stood firm. And in the course of the summer of 2009, as Americans began to grow fearful of the scope and intrusiveness of the Obama administration’s health-care proposal, that movement’s numbers grew. In August 2009, when congressmen and senators held town halls to discuss the proposed bill, ordinary Americans showed up in droves; and, to the evident dismay of their representatives, they bluntly spoke their minds.

By January 2010, when the unknown Republican Scott Brown defeated the well-known Democrat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts race for the seat in the Senate once occupied by Ted Kennedy, it was clear that the Tea Party movement was destined to become a powerful force not only within the Republican Party but in the country as a whole, and patronage-minded Republican senators and congressmen who hoped to be re-elected in 2010 began to get with the program. Republican candidates who were not quick to do so soon came under fire. A three-term senator from Utah who failed to take note was denied his party’s nomination for re-election at the state’s Republican convention.

A senator from Alaska, the scion of an entrenched political dynasty and a member of the Republican leadership, suffered the same fate in her party primary. In Delaware, a popular nine-term congressman who had served two terms as governor lost his party’s senatorial primary to an insurgent who had never held political office. In Kentucky, the same fate met its secretary of state. In Florida, a former state senator came from nowhere (the first poll had him at three percent) to force a popular sitting governor to abandon his quest for the Republican senatorial nomination. And in the Republican senatorial primaries in Colorado and Nevada, Tea Party–backed insurgents defeated a lieutenant governor and a former party chairman.

It is perfectly understandable that Republican regulars thwarted in the primaries, Democrats defeated in the midterm elections, and adherents of both parties who found themselves suddenly deprived of political influence should find these developments disconcerting. It is equally understandable that those who find unpalatable either the Tea Party’s approach or some of the more colorful and/or questionable candidates to emerge victorious as a consequence of its rise might consider this leaderless and inchoate force’s impact worrisome or even frightening. In point of fact, however, this sort of upheaval is nothing new. Such forces have risen periodically throughout the history of the United States and have their antecedents in 17th- and 18th-century England.

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In his 1748 Spirit of Laws, the great political philosopher Montesquieu attributed the recurring turmoil that had long beset England to the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. The Tudors for the most part had been able to sidestep the problem in the 16th century because Henry VIII and his children had sufficient wealth in the lands he had seized from the Catholic Church to cover most of their needs. But their Stuart successors in the 17th century found that those resources had been largely exhausted; and to cover their expenses and those of the government they directed, they were compelled to have frequent recourse to Parliament for revenue.

To their dismay and that of their ministers, what soon came to be called “the Country” rose up in high dudgeon time and time again to denounce on the floor of the House of Commons what was perceived as favoritism, corruption, arbitrary rule, conspiracy, and papist predilections on the part of a Court thought to be intent on encroaching on the rights of ordinary Englishmen and the prerogatives possessed by Parliament. These tensions produced the English civil war of the 1640s, the execution of Charles I in 1648, the rule of the Rump Parliament and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the 1640s and 1650s, followed by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1658, which was in turn followed 30 years later by the Glorious Revolution.

By the time Montesquieu arrived in England, things had settled down. The political tensions that had periodically given rise to turbulence and bloodshed were now being resolved peacefully through electioneering and balloting, and monarchs now found themselves forced to appoint as ministers those who had the confidence of Parliament and were not simply tools of the Crown.

Montesquieu found the dynamics of English politics both instructive and amusing. “The hatred” that had long existed between Court and Country he regarded as a permanent feature. This hatred “would endure,” he observed, “because it would always be powerless,” and it would be powerless because “the parties” inspired by the separation of powers would be “composed of free men” who would be inclined to switch sides if either the executive power or the legislative power appeared to have “secured too much.”

The English were a commercial people who lived in what Montesquieu called “a republic concealed under the form of a monarchy.” The regime under which they were reared, being neither republican in the classical sense nor genuinely monarchical, did little to inculcate in them a spirit of self-sacrifice and even less to inspire in them a love of honor and glory. Instead, it left Englishmen to their own devices; and in the absence of direction from above, they tended to succumb to the restlessness and anxiety that Montesquieu called inquiétude. In such a nation, he remarked, the charges lodged by the party that stood in opposition to the executive branch “would augment even more” than usual “the terrors” to which a people so disposed were naturally prone, for they “would never know really whether they were in danger or not.”

Ordinarily the legislature, which enjoyed the confidence of the people, would be in a position to moderate their fears. “In this fashion,” Montesquieu noted, when “the terrors impressed” on the populace lacked “a certain object, they would produce nothing but vain clamors & name-calling; & they would have this good effect: that they would stretch all the springs of government & render the citizens attentive.”

And if the terrors fanned by the party opposed to the English executive were ever “to appear on the occasion of an overturning of the fundamental laws,” he observed, “they would be muted, lethal, excruciating & produce catastrophes: before long, one would see a frightful calm, during which the whole would unite itself against the power violating the laws.”

Moreover, he added, if such “disputes took shape on the occasion of a violation of the fundamental laws, & if a foreign power appeared,” as happened when the arrival of the Dutch political and military leader William of Orange in 1688 triggered the Glorious Revolution, “there would be a revolution, which would change neither the form of the government nor its constitution: for the revolutions to which liberty gives shape are nothing but a confirmation of liberty.”

Over the past generation, historians have tended to interpret the American Revolution similarly as a clash between Court and Country. The pattern described by Montesquieu was duplicated in colonies such as Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York in the 17th and 18th centuries. Moreover, the charges leveled against King and Parliament by the American colonists in the period stretching from 1762 to 1776 were a compendium of those lodged long before by the critics of James I and Charles I; the opponents of the Long Parliament, the Rump Parliament, and Oliver Cromwell; the proponents of the Glorious Revolution; and those who subsequently became disgruntled under the rule of William of Orange following his installation as William III and those who followed him over the next century culminating in the reign of George III.

The same pattern manifested itself also in the political disputes that followed the founding of the United States. To be sure, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison organized the first American political party, they did not accuse Alexander Hamilton and those who came to be called the Federalists of papist predilections. But they did assert that the economic program proposed by Hamilton in his capacity as George Washington’s secretary of the treasury amounted to a conspiracy to overthrow republicanism in America and consolidate power in the hands of an irresponsible executive indistinguishable from a monarch. That is why Jefferson spoke of the election of 1800 and his own ascendancy to the presidency as a second American revolution.

Similar rhetoric was deployed by the movement that sprang up against the so-called “Tariff of Abominations” shortly after its passage in 1828. Andrew Jackson articulated much the same argument in the battle he undertook in his second presidential term (1832-36) against Nicholas Biddle’s proposal for a rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, and so did Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans in their quest in the late 1850s against what they called “the slave-power conspiracy.”

One could hear echoes of these earlier controversies in the campaign mounted against the railroads and banks by the People’s Party in 1892 (the force widely considered the originator of what has come to be called “populism”), in the presidential campaign undertaken by the insurgent Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1896 against the tight-money fiscal policies that he said were crucifying America on a “cross of gold,” and in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s assertion at the Democratic Convention in 1936 that “a small group” of economic royalists was intent on concentrating “into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.” And, of course, it is a similar suspicion that has given rise to the Tea Party movement.

Consider what Barack Obama and the Democrats did over the past two years—with their so-called stimulus, health-care reform, and reform of financial regulation. Each initiative involved the passage of a bill more than a thousand pages in length that virtually no one voting on could have read, and no one but those who framed it could have understood. Each involved a massive expansion of the federal government and massive payoffs to favored constituencies. And each was part of a much larger project openly pursued by self-styled progressives in the course of the last century and aimed at concentrating in the hands of “a small group” of putative experts “an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor—other people’s lives.” Without quite knowing whom they are evoking, Tea Partiers are inclined to say, as FDR said in 1936, that if they do not put a stop to what is going on, “for too many of us life” will be “no longer free” and “liberty no longer real”—for otherwise the bureaucratic busybodies ensconced in Washington will deprive us of the means by which to “follow the pursuit of happiness” as we see fit.

The only difference is that FDR’s assertions demonizing the “economic royalists” were demonstrably false, and when the Tea Partiers make comparable claims today, they are, alas, telling the truth.

American liberty is more fragile than we are inclined to suppose. The Framers of the Constitution were well aware that the republics of ancient Greece and those of medieval and early modern Italy were situated on diminutive territories. They knew that Rome’s expansion had eventuated in Rome’s loss of liberty, and they understood why Montesquieu had initially argued that a republic could not be sustained on an extended territory. A government set at a considerable distance from the people over whom it rules is apt to become a despotism, for it is out of sight and out of mind, beyond reach and beyond control. This the Framers understood. They took heart, however, from the French philosopher’s suggestion that a federation of small republics could overcome this geographical imperative. They were reassured by his tacit acknowledgement that, by way of the separation of powers, the “republic concealed under the form of a monarchy” that had emerged in Great Britain had overcome this imperative as well. And they themselves observed that the religious and economic diversity that had followed from America’s territorial extension were successfully subverting the force of faction.

In the early 1790s, however, when James Madison began thinking about the political consequences inherent in the ambitious program of economic development charted by Alexander Hamilton, he had occasion to reconsider Montesquieu’s warning. He believed that “a consolidation of the States into one government” was implicit in Hamilton’s assertion of federal prerogatives. And he feared that such a consolidation would neutralize the expedients suggested by Montesquieu and instituted by the Framers and leave “the whole government to that self directed course, which, it must be owned, is the natural propensity of every government.”

First, Madison thought, the separation of powers could give way to centralized administration of the sort that typified despotism. If federalism were subverted in this way and the national government by one means or another took over the prerogatives of the states and the localities, the legislature situated in the new nation’s capital would quickly prove to be incompetent “to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments,” and this “would evidently force a transfer of many of” those objects “to the executive department.”

Second, Madison contended, because the state and local governments are close to the people—in sight and in mind, within reach and control—they and not the federal government are the natural instruments of civic agency. If, however, they were made to be dependent on and subject to the national government, they would cease to serve this function, and the sheer size of the country would stand in the way of concerted popular political action. It would prevent the exercise of “that control” on the national legislature “which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, [since] neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.” In such circumstances, Madison warned prophetically, “the impossibility of acting together, might be succeeded by the inefficacy of partial expressions of the public mind, and this at length, by a universal silence and insensibility.” It was the absence of effective popular checks that would leave the national government to a “self directed course.”

Madison, Jefferson, and their heirs in the Jacksonian period were arguably wrong about the political consequences implicit in the program proposed by Hamilton in the 1790s and revived by Henry Clay in the late 1820s. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans implemented a policy indistinguishable from Hamilton’s program and Clay’s American System, and that policy did not have the consequences that Madison, his associates, and their heirs feared. But the prospect that Madison imagined is, in fact, the prospect the world’s most venerable democratic republic now faces.

Over almost a century, under the influence of the Progressives and their heirs—the proponents of the New Deal, the Great Society, and Barack Obama’s New Foundation we have experienced a gradual consolidation of power in the federal government. Legislative responsibilities have been transferred to administrative agencies lodged within the executive—such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the vast array of bodies established under the recent health-care reform—and these have been delegated in an ever increasing number of spheres the authority to issue rules and regulations that have the force of law.

In the process, the state and local governments have become dependent on federal largesse, which always comes with strings attached in the form of funded or unfunded “mandates” designed to make these governments fall in line with federal policy. Civic agency, rooted as it normally is in locality, has withered as the localities have lost their leverage. The civic associations so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville have for the most part become lobbying operations with offices in Washington focused on influencing federal policy, and many of them have also become recipients of government grants and reliable instruments for the implementation of federal policy.

The Tea Party movement is, however, testimony to the fact that all is not lost. When confronted in a brazen fashion with the tyrannical impulse underpinning the administrative state, ordinary Americans from all walks of life are still capable of fighting back. It is easy enough to mock. Like all spontaneous popular movements, the Tea Party has attracted its fair share of cranks: it would have been a miracle if it had not attracted those who are obsessed with the question of Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the heavy-handed and ineffective procedures adopted by the Transportation Security Agency.

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But it should be reassuring rather than frightening to the American elite that at the dawn of the third millennium, Americans know to become nervous and watchful when a presidential candidate who has presented himself to the public as a moderate devotee of bipartisanship intent on eliminating waste in federal programs suddenly endorses “spreading the wealth around” and on the eve of his election speaks of “fundamentally transforming America.” It should be of comfort to them that a small-business owner in Nebraska believes he has reason to express public qualms when a prospective White House chief of staff, in the midst of an economic downturn, announces that the new administration is not about to “let a serious crisis go to waste” and that it intends to exploit that crisis as “an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.” And it should be a source of pride to elites that the philosophical superstructure of the United States demonstrated extraordinary durability when a significant number of their fellow citizens refused to sit silent after an administration implied the inadequacy of the founding by promoting itself as the New Foundation, and after the head of government specifically questioned the special place of the United States in the world by denying “American exceptionalism.”

Most important, it should be humbling to those elites that ordinary American citizens choose spontaneously to enter the political arena in droves, concert opposition, speak up in a forthright manner, and oust a host of entrenched office holders when they learn that a system of punitive taxation is in the offing, when they are repeatedly told what they know to be false—that, under the new health-care system that the administration is intent on establishing, benefits will be extended and costs reduced and no one will lose the coverage he already has—and when they discover that Medicare is to be gutted, that medical care is to be rationed, and that citizens who have no desire to purchase health insurance are going to be forced to do so.

In 1776, when George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, he included a provision reflecting what the revolutionaries had learned from the long period of struggle between Court and Country in England and in America: “that no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” What we are witnessing with the Tea Party movement is one of the periodic recurrences to fundamental principles that typify and revivify the American experiment in self-government.

These developments are never exclusively salutary. The people sometimes err, as Montesquieu understood and as, I believe, has happened with considerable frequency in our nation’s past. But as Thomas Jefferson observed in the wake of the rebellion mounted by Daniel Shays in 1786, if the “turbulence” to which popular government is “subject” is regrettable, “even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government, and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.” In Europe, Jefferson explained, “under the pretence of government, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep.” He feared that the same would in time happen in America. If the people in the United States should ever “become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I,” he wrote to one correspondent, “and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves.”From the outset, Jefferson feared that in this country the government would eventually find its way to what his friend James Madison would later call a “self directed course.” It was with this unwelcome prospect in mind that he asked, “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve their spirit of resistance?” In the end, then, one does not have to agree with the Tea Party movement in every particular to welcome its appearance.

About the Author

Paul A. Rahe is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author, most recently, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty and Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift.