This is part two of two parts from historian and Global Comment regular contributor Erik Loomis on the history behind the U.S.’s current “Tea Party” movement. Part one is here. Enjoy!
I addressed the race issue in such detail because the nation has had a confused discussion on race and the Tea Party. But the Tea Parties disdain for a powerful federal government has received the bulk of the media’s attention. In this, they fit well into the history of American political thought. The American Revolution certainly contained no small hint of anti-government fervor; after all, the British only asked the colonists to pay their fair share of taxes within the British system of government commonly recognized by nearly everyone in the empire at the time.
Fears of big government continued to dominate the pre-Civil War period. Thomas Jefferson fretted about the powers given to the federal government in the Constitution. Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren sent the nation spiraling into economic collapse rather than cede control of the economy to the Bank of the United States. The South rallied around big government’s suppression of their rights as slaveholders in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Eventually, the intractable problems facing the industrializing society of the late 19th century culminated in grassroots groups clamoring for government intervention. Grassroots movements saw the government as the ability to wrest control of the nation from corporations. The Populists wanted government control over railroads and utilities. Progressives saw government regulation as the solution for a variety of national ills. Labor unions pressed for the government to force recognition of their unions. Finally, the Great Depression ushered in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which brought an activist federal government to much of American life.
The rise of a powerful central government made many Americans uncomfortable. Organizing against the New Deal state rallied the troops of far right organizations, especially as the government began passing civil rights legislation after World War II. Right-wingers began coalescing in groups like the John Birch Society that viewed the New Deal state as destroying the nation’s civil liberties and opening us up to communist threats. The Ku Klux Klan, which grew rapidly in the 1950s, expressed similar concerns about government interference in race relations. These and other organizations began laying the anti-government groundwork in the 1950s for the New Right and Tea Parties of the present.
As government programs turned working-class whites into the middle class after World War II, those very people turned against the government as an agent seeking to destroy their newfound prosperity. The government began looking to alleviate poverty among African-Americans, which meant building public housing and desegregating schools in northern cities. But from the perspective of millions of northern whites, a strong central government was fine so long as it helped them but when it turned to public housing, desegregating schools, and creating welfare programs, those same people believed the government had become a threat to their way of life.
Suspicion of a powerful central government has roots on the American left as well. The 1960s generation saw in Vietnam, technocratic Great Society liberalism, and environmental collapse a malicious government that had failed the people. Back to the land movements, communes, and ethnic nationalism became local responses for people who simply stopped believing that government could solve problems.
The Tea Party’s anti-government rhetoric certainly fits into this American tradition of suspicion of a powerful central government. Influenced by the same ideas that led to the militia movements of the 1990s and the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, the Tea Party has attacked the government in violent terms. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) referred to the “gangster government” and called for the people to get “armed and dangerous” against the Obama Administration’s policies. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) justified Joe Stack’s terrorism when he flew his plane into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, blaming the IRS’ existence for the incident. Any number of Tea Party members talk darkly of using violent means to resist federal authority.
The Tea Party is tremendously inconsistent in its ideology. To generalize, they accept ballooning military budgets, rigorous immigration enforcement, and support government investment in prisons but not schools. Of late, stories of Tea Party farmers attacking wasteful government spending while receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in government agricultural subsidies have come to light. But the New Right has always fought this paradox. Lisa McGirr, in her book Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right, shows that the birthplaces of the modern conservative movement were the very places whose citizens most benefited from the military-industrial complex after World War II—Texas, Colorado Springs, the Atlanta suburbs, and Orange County, California. In the parts of the country most benefiting from government investment grew the roots of the modern anti-government movement.
Moreover, this inconsistency is entirely consistent with the New Racism, with its emphasis on “law and order,” “personal responsibility,” and “individual rights.” When the government enforces these ideas, New Right criticisms of the government quiets.
The Tea Parties and Nixonland
Traditionally, Americans have not demonized their political opponents. For example, the late 19th century was a period of tremendous partisan competition, but it lacked the harsh personal rhetoric that defines today’s politics. The one exception is the lead-up to the Civil War. Before the 1960s, only the sectional conflict surrounding slavery created an atmosphere where mistrust and ideology created a dysfunctional political system. It took over 500,000 dead Americans to solve that problem.
Rick Perlstein demonstrates in his book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America that the 1960s permanently changed American political discourse. Richard Nixon tapped into the resentments many Americans felt toward the liberal elites who had dominated mainstream politics since the 1930s. These people saw the civil rights movement as a threat to white privilege and they viewed the student protesters of the New Left as spoiled children who wanted to destroy their way of life. Nixon seized upon these resentments, creating his political base, and exploiting social divisions for political gain. In the process, he permanently altered the political landscape.
Perlstein argues that we are still living in Nixonland today. He’s right. Since 2000, the level of mistrust between the two parties has reached new heights, epitomized by the current stalemate in the Senate. The Right continues to foster and exploit this mistrust for political advantage. In the Senate, several Democrats will gladly work with Republicans, but very few Republicans will return the favor.
The Tea Parties embody the resentment and anger Nixon fostered. They not only reject the political ideas of their opponents, but they refuse to accept the president as the legitimate head of state. The only other time this has happened in American history was when Abraham Lincoln won in 1860; even then, the South admitted Lincoln had fairly won the election and simply chose to leave the nation. The Tea Party movement sees in the Obama government, and in the Democratic Party more broadly, a vast conspiracy to destroy individual values, white privilege, and capitalism. Despite the absurdity of these arguments, a sizable chunk of the public is not only denying the legitimacy of our elected leaders but is organizing to destabilize the government.
Nixonland also helps us understand the Tea Parties because their participants largely come from the 60s generation. This cloud’s silver lining is its members’ ages. These older, white, and generally well-off people have consciously employed the rhetoric of that generation. They called a recent conservative music festival their own Woodstock. Their talk of civil disobedience and even violence to resist the federal government are tactics that come from the civil rights movement and even the Black Panthers.
While this rhetoric worries me in much the same way that it worried 1960s conservatives, in reality the Tea Parties might be the last gasp of 60s politics. Maybe Nixonland has an end point. Young progressives seem frustrated by the divisive politics of post-60s America. Part of Barack Obama’s appeal to young people was the potential to move beyond the polarizing politics of the Vietnam generation. On the other hand, it’s impossible to predict what the Tea Parties will lead to, how younger people will react to them should they continue, and what their long term effects on the nation’s political life will be.
As a historian, I argue we have to look to the past in order to understand the present. That’s certainly the case for the Tea Party movement, a more complex organism than the left usually admits. This is a movement with potential to cause great damage to the nation. The Tea Party operates using traditional themes of right-wing activism combined with the aggressive politics of the 1960s. The Tea Parties tapped into the fears and hatreds of many Americans. Their damage to the Obama Administration is quite demonstrable, but the potential long-term effects of this latest manifestation of right-wing populism remain open to question.