Timothy Snyder: A Dangerous Misreading of the Boston Tea Party from Rightwing Anarchists

Roundup: Historians' Take

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. An expert on eastern Europe and the second world war, he has published numerous books and written articles for periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, New Republic, Prospect and the Nation. His latest book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010).

As Michele Bachmann contends for the Republican nomination, we might ask what her Tea Party means for her native midwest. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born and raised, mantras of low taxation and small government have become the way to avoid discussing the challenges of globalisation. Beneath this region's soothing triple green of maize, soybeans, and copses of trees is a soil that serves the world. Places like Clinton County, where my family has lived for two centuries, are the American epicentres of an inspiring but pitiless global economy. Global competition has made family farming here all but impossible, and the region's sowing and reaping is now done by combines that are in effect mobile, high-tech agricultural factories. The labourers no longer needed in the countryside found work in these parts with the international courier service DHL, which in the last decade used Clinton County as its domestic hub. When parent company Deutsche Post suddenly closed DHL's US domestic operations in 2008, 7,000 men and women lost their jobs.

Clinton County is a good example of what happens when harsh global economics go unsoftened by policies of national welfare. The county seat, Wilmington, has a population of only about 12,000. Its businesses had already taken a beating from Wal-Mart, and could hardly absorb the unemployed. Most of the 7,000 newly jobless had health insurance through their workplace, and when they lost their jobs, they lost their coverage. Some fell ill or even died from entirely treatable conditions. For the last two years the headlines of the Wilmington newspaper have been dominated by stories of basement labs for the production of methamphetamine, which reporters simply call "meth." In recent weeks this has given way to news of arrests of heroin dealers. Despite or perhaps because of their struggles, the farmers and workers of Clinton Country are overwhelmingly Republican.

When I first heard of Ohioans taking part in the "Tea Party" in 2009, I assumed that the name referred to late-afternoon political networking over scones. The people from my home state whom I knew to be enthusiastically involved had made their fortunes much earlier, and were quite rich. When I realised that the reference was to American colonial tax revolts against Britain of the 1770s, I was dumbstruck. As anyone who went through Ohio's public schools should know, the American patriots of the day were not protesting against paying taxes. They were demanding to be represented by the government that taxed them, which is something quite different. What American patriots opposed was not taxation itself, but taxation without representation....

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