Godfrey Hodgson: Thanksgiving and the Tea Party

Roundup: Talking About History

[Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent.]

Today, 25 November, is Thanksgiving, the warmest and most cherished of public holidays in the United States. It is a private, domestic festival. Independence Day is more likely to be associated with bunting, brass-bands and bombast, Thanksgiving is intimate, quiet and non-commercial: an occasion when tens of millions of Americans gather at home to celebrate with a family meal (turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie) their gratitude for the blessings America has brought them.

At least, that was the prevailing idea. Now, Kate Bernike reports in the New York Times, the devotees of the Tea Party maintain that what Thanksgiving really celebrates is Americans’ liberation from socialism. The early settlers may have arrived more than two centuries before socialism came into existence; but the Tea Party - drawing on a stew of notions long in circulation on the political right - view them as having “realized the error of their collectivist ways and embraced capitalism, producing a bumper year, upon which they decided that it was only right to celebrate the glory of the free market and private property.”

An educational course that is highly popular with the Tea Party folks and their cheerleaders at Fox News and elsewhere maintains that “the real reason for Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them” (see Kate Zernike, "The Pilgrims Were...Socialists?", New York Times, 20 November 2010).

The fable shows every sign of having been twisted into shape to suit the contemporary mash of populist, individualist, libertarian politics that the Tea Party champions. But here’s the odd thing: there is a certain historical basis for it...

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