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Publick Occurrences 2.0

April 17, 2009

Taking Tea Parties Too Seriously

Filed under: Conservatives,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:11 pm

I have read through some of the material linked to in Ben’s last post and my sense is a lot of people in the blogosphere (including the left side) are taking the tea party protests a little too seriously, pondering the possible grass-roots origins of the “movement” and speculating that this may (finally) be the right’s answer to the Web 2.0 innovations (blogs, mobile devices, YouTube & other user-directed web sites) of the Dean and Obama campaigns. I am not so sure.

There may be an element of the right borrowing from the left in the protests, and I gather that the protesters did organize themselves through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, but the major borrowing would seem to be from the goofy-to-intentionally-annoying “street theater” approach and extreme rhetoric that have long been popular with the latter-day peace movement, radical environmentalism, the 9/11 “Truth Movement,” and other hippie and post-hippie  causes. Only with tricorn hats instead of tie-dyed shirts.

Politically, it is a hopeful sign for liberals and Obama that the right has turned to protesting like this, it seems to me. Such tactics have never been been the road to majority support in this country, at least not since the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the most politically successful of which emphasized dignified displays of solidarity over circuses of political self-expression. Funny signs and crazy costumes are good for getting publicity, at least for a while, but the message that most average citizens seem to take away from such scenes is that the cause in question must be as freakish and cranky and unappealing as its supporters. Indeed, one might argue that colorful street protests of this type are the natural mode of expression of hopelessly-outnumbered gadfly causes that seek attention for their viewpoint rather making any real attempts at persuasion.

As usual, Jon Stewart had it exactly right, emphasizing the exchange of left-right roles involved and suggesting which role is the likely winning one:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Nationwide Tax Protests
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Even beyond the right’s turn to unpopular hippie tactics, it is hard to see how colorfully-delivered but utterly boilerplate conservative complaints about high taxation in general are going to catch fire at a time when taxes have not actually been raised above the historically-low rates of recent times. As this excellent Chicago Tribune piece points out, Americans generally seem far more concerned now about the spiraling economy than vintage 70s tax concerns. Moreover, the possibility of needing some transfer payments themselves, or at least that they might actually benefit from government programs, seems to have dawned on more middle-class Americans than at any time I can remember. That is what has the Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman set so exercised. That, and other stuff I will mention in my next, on why we might need to take some of the attitudes animating the tea parties very seriously indeed.

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April 14, 2009

Tea-partying like it’s 1773 — no, really!

Filed under: Conservatives,Guest posts,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:47 pm

Here’s another, welcome but unsolicited view of the modern “tea party movement” that Ben just wrote about, from Myths of the Lost Atlantis guest poster Andrew Shankman of Rutgers. The so-called teabaggers have been the snark of the liberal blogosphere and MSNBC the past few days, but Andy suggests that this may be a rare case of a right-wing historical analogy having a certain accuracy:

Tomorrow in what appears to be a scripted farce, some number of Americans will wave tea bags to denounce what they view as the outrageous, un-American taxes of the Obama Administration.  The teabags are meant to invoke the Boston Tea Party of December 15, 1773, when, in current U.S. dollars, the Boston Sons of Liberty dumped between $1.5 and $2 million worth of tea into Boston Harbor.

Many of my fellow Obama supporters have denied that these modern tea-partiers can claim a proud American heritage since President Obama has lowered the taxes of the vast majority of U.S. citizens.  This modern nonsense, they insist, can, therefore have nothing to do with that brave act of resistance, which provoked the Coercive Acts that led to the First Continental Congress and two years later to the Declaration of Independence.

Yet how wrong my fellow liberals are.  In denouncing President Obama’s smug, elitist insistence that taxes be lowered, the modern tea-baggers follow precisely the example of the Boston Sons of Liberty.  The Tea Act of 1773, conceived by the ministry of Frederick Lord North, gave the East India Tea Company monopoly privilege to sell tea to the American colonists.  This privilege was intended to bail out the floundering company.  In exchange for it, the company paid a light tax and also agreed to sell the tea to the colonists at prices lower than they had been before Parliament passed the Tea Act.  The Tea Party occurred because the Massachusetts colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to let company ships laden with tea that had arrived in the harbor leave without unloading.  The tea sat for several days and the time when it would have to be unloaded or seized and sold at public auction neared.  Leaders of the Boston Sons understood that if the historically cheap tea made it on shore, whether unloaded by the company or as a result of public seizure, the good citizens of Boston would happily purchase it.  So into the harbor it had to go before a principled stand against no taxation without representation ended with Bostonians drinking very cheap (but taxed) tea.

So wave your teabags by all means.  Denouncing taxes that have actually been lowered and resisting shrewd, well-designed policies is so American that it predates the United States of America.

Andrew Shankman
Associate Professor of History
Rutgers University, Camden

I might add that the other factor that the 1773 and 2009 Tea Parties have in common is that they primarily express their organizers’ atavistic political antipathies, and their desire to put on attention-getting political stunts, rather than any coherent ideas about tax policy. Of course, Sam Adams and his cohorts may possibly have organized their stunt in an otherwise worthier cause than Rick Santelli and his.

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Now playing: Comet Gain – This English Melancholy

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April 10, 2009

Clio Takes a Look at 2009 Tea Parties

Reader BMC insists that I post on this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.  (If you want to know what all the snickering is about, I’d suggest consulting an online slang dictionary, and I’m not responsible for what you find.)

I think the easiest thing to do would be to start picking out all the bad historical analogies and use it as an excuse to guffaw at the “Tea Party” movement that’s scheduled to demonstrate on April 15, 2009 (tax filing day).  But I’m not going to do that–instead I’m going to try and be even-handed about this, and see if there’s anything to this grassroots conservative invocation of the Boston Tea Party.

Unfortunately, the ideology behind all of this seems rather vague.  For instance, here’s what the website TaxDayTeaParty.com says on its front page:

The Tea Party effort is just a small piece of a much larger movement aimed at restoring the basic free-market principles our country was built on. The Constitution, for the most part, is being ignored by our current government and we intend on working together to correct the problem.

The Tea Party effort is a grassroots, collaborative volunteer organization made up of every day American citizens from across the country. We take pride in the fact that we’ve built a 50 state network of leaders and activists using nothing more than the internet, a few websites and a burning desire to restore freedom.

There’s not much there: the protesters are in favor of “basic free-market principles” and “freedom.”  (Well, me too!)  The site doesn’t say how the government is ignoring the Constitution, exactly–and if you dig a little further, it all goes back to Rick Santelli’s displeasure with the stimulus plan and the budget.

To the extent that the 2009 tax protests are part of a grass-roots movement, I think it’s fine to invoke the Boston Tea Party as your inspiration–although many suspect that corporate lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have a lot to do with organizing and promoting this protest, and even Santelli himself apears to have been the frontman for a rightwing foundation.  Still, if people are responding to the movement and even organizing local “tea parties” on their own, then that does accord with the local tea protests that sprang up in 1773-1774 in the wake of (and even immediately before) the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

One historical analogy that fails, however, is the idea that the Bostonians aboard the tea ships in 1773 were protesting higher taxes under the Tea Act.  This is just wrong.

  • First, the British Parliament first passed the tax on tea in 1767, and Bostonians had in fact purchased plenty of tea bearing the threepenny-per-pound duty during the intervening years.  New Yorkers and Philadelphians, who smuggled almost all of their tea from Holland and elsewhere, were in fact outraged at how little the New Englanders were able to stick to their “anti-tax” principles.  In this respect, the Boston Tea Party was almost an apology.
  • Second, the Tea Act would in fact have lowered the price of tea for Americans–so the idea of invoking the “Tea Party” every time you think your taxes are too high is incorrect.  Instead, the Tea Party protesters were energized by a series of principles: the government was propping up a monopoly company (the East India Company), the government was perpetuating an unjust tax (the 1767 tax on tea which had been confirmed in 1770), and the government was using the revenue from that tax to pay the salaries of judges and executive officials, thus rendering them independent of local legislatures.
  • Third, and most importantly: I’ve been extremely dismayed at how many of the protesters say, “Taxation WITH representation ain’t so hot either.“  (I’m not just cherry-picking a random blog comment here–this phrase is everywhere.)

Well, no, no one LIKES paying taxes, but most people recognize that you need some form of taxation in order to pay firemen and astronauts, defend the country’s borders, try to ensure that our food isn’t poisoned, etc.  The point of protest against the Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act in 1765-1774 was that “taxation WITHOUT representation” would lead to slavery–in other words, the colonists believed that the British ministry was arbitrarily levying taxes on Americans when those Americans had no say in electing members of Parliament.  In a democratic republican government, if you don’t like the level of your taxes or you don’t like how your tax money is spent, you have the power to peaceably “throw the bums out.”  And you certainly have the First Amendment right to protest and rail against the stimulus and bailout.  But the point is, the people of the Revolutionary Era had to fight for those rights to get rid of a constitutional monarchy–it’s hardly the case that paying taxes from a colony to a (partially hereditary) government that you don’t elect is the same as paying taxes to a government consisting of representatives and an executive that you DO have the power to elect.

On the other hand, to the extent that the tax protesters believe that their government doesn’t adequately represent them anymore, they’re arguing something more interesting.  If we stipulate that the current execution of the United States Constitution has failed, and that reform of the Constitution is needed (which many on both the left and the right have argued), then legislation and executive policy under George W. Bush or Barack Obama (or whoever) really is the product of a flawed system, and therefore (perhaps) as unjust as anything passed by King George III and the British Parliament. Still, before making this argument, I’d recommend picking up (for instance) Edmund Morgan’s Inventing the People, on how Americans came to believe that a representative government DID have the legitimate right to make laws in a way that a king did not.

By all means, let’s have a civil debate about Obama’s policies in the midst of the economic crisis.  And by all means, if we think that the problems we’re facing are due to underlying constitutional problems rather than the current legislative/executive solutions, then let’s talk about constitutional reform.  But (although I realize it’s too late now) please don’t abuse the analogy to the Boston Tea Party, even if such abuse (again, from both the right and left) is almost as much of an American tradition as the Tea Party itself.

P.S.  Also?  Why even mention tea bags?  In 1773 they were dumping loose tea into the harbor–the tea bag wasn’t invented until later–and you can still buy loose tea.

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