Michael Lind: The Right Picked the Wrong Historical Analogy





[Michael Lind is policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation]

...The [Tea Party] movement chose the wrong historical precedent when it selected the Boston Tea Party of 1773, a genuinely revolutionary event, as its symbol. Today’s Tea Party movement is much more like the misguided and ill-fated Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s, during the first term of America’s first president, George Washington....

Today’s Tea Party movement resembles the Whiskey Rebellion -- but emphatically not because it is supported only by ignorant yahoos, as many critics of the Tea Partiers contend. On the contrary, just as the Tea Party is supported and subsidized by many elite conservatives, so the Whiskey Rebellion’s sympathizers included members of the early republic's elite....

In another, even more important respect, the Tea Party resembles the Whiskey Rebellion rather than the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was the beginning of a genuine popular revolution whose purpose was not to oppose government as such, but to transfer government from unelected rulers in Britain to elected representatives in the U.S. Once that transfer had taken place, the federal and state governments had the right to impose taxes, even stupid and counterproductive taxes, which Americans were free to protest against -- but only by means short of violence. George Washington was perfectly consistent in leading the revolution against illegitimate British authority and later taking to the saddle again, as president, to assert the legitimate authority of the federal government during the Whiskey Rebellion....

While pursuing negotiations with the Whiskey Rebels, President Washington put on his uniform and reviewed the troops assembled at Fort Cumberland, Md., in case they were needed. The violence of the Tea Party to date has been purely rhetorical. Its members will maul, not individual tax collectors, but the tax code, if the movement succeeds in sending even more intransigent reactionaries to the already paralyzed Congress and the Senate in this fall’s midterm elections....



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