The Tea Party Movement Has Deep American Roots

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Louise W. Knight is the author of "Jane Addams, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy," "Jane Addams: Spirit in Action," and a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

This country began with a fierce debate, and it does not appear to be over.  The folks rallying to the Tea Party campaign espouse a program that goes right back to the Articles of Confederation.  Whatever we think of it, the movement is as American as apple pie.  And its followers think so too, calling themselves "patriots" rather than Republicans or Democrats.

Mark Skoda, the president of a Tea Party PAC, recently summed up what he calls their first principles:  "less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states' rights and national security."

There's an irony here, though.  The Tea Partiers lustily cheer at every mention of the United States Constitution, yet their principles were most fiercely embodied not in our current Constitution but in the Articles of Confederation.

Remember those?  The same month that Congress was debating a declaration of independence, a committee was drafting the Articles.  Its purpose was to form a new government, which it called the United States of America.  The states completed ratification of the Articles in 1781.  Eight years later, the Constitution supplanted the Articles and brought to an end the political institution that Tea Party members now seem intent on reviving.

The Articles allowed the new central government -- solely a legislative body -- to make war but not to tax or regulate interstate commerce.  States, nervous about losing their independence, had intentionally designed a weak government.  That was why it was called a confederacy.  The Southern states, equally determined to protect states' rights, created another one eighty years later.

The first confederacy failed.  Unable to tax, it struggled to raise money from the states to finance the Continental Army; after the war ended, it could not help states floundering with war debts.  By 1786, it was clear to many that the confederation needed to be replaced by something stronger, a federation.

The second constitution, the one we live under now, became law in 1788.  It gave the central government powers to tax and to regulate interstate commerce and created a national government that for the first time had executive and judicial branches.  Many Americans, known as the anti-Federalists, had their doubts about the new constitution.

Their spiritual descendants are the Tea Partiers.  Like the anti-Federalists, the Tea Party folks are fiercely distrustful of the national government, especially its power to tax, even though they completely trust its power to defend the nation.  They also dislike the two-party political system created in Washington's first administration. Sarah Palin recently declared her disapproval of both the Republican and Democratic parties in her speech to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and sparked an explosion of approval from her audience.

Today's defenders of the Constitution are the progressives.  Led by President Obama, they believe that the national government should not only protect the nation from attack, promote interstate commerce and protect individual rights, but also solve national problems through federal legislation -- from building infrastructure to promote economic growth to making the schools better to protecting workers from unjust employment practices.  It is not surprising that the Tea Partiers hate Obama.  He embodies the anti-Federalists' worst fears.

What is perhaps most interesting about the Tea Partiers is that they have no interest in the socially divisive cultural issues -- abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia -- that have so dominated our recent national political debate.  That, at least, is refreshing.

Instead, these Americans have returned to the oldest argument arising from this nation's founding -- what should the role of the national government be?  Should it help Americans who are struggling or should it not?  Should we maintain (and even strengthen, as through health reform) the progressive apparatus of laws and programs that keep the unemployed, the poor and the elderly sick, and even all citizens, from suffering, and increase total federal tax revenues to pay for it, or should we deconstruct that apparatus and reduce those revenues?

This is the debate we should be having.  May it recommence!

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Dale R Streeter - 3/26/2010

Mr. Courts,
Is any criticism of the President's ideas and programs inherently racist? Is merely using his name a racist statement? How should he be referred to, as BO? Well, since President Bush was called W, why not?

Guy Bruce Courts - 3/20/2010

Mr. Jones,

<< Most of those involved in the Tea Party movement do so because of their concerns over the nation's economic health and future due do a government that is quickly bankrupting the country. >>

Where exactly were all of the fiscally reponsible tea partiers from 2001 - 2008? As for race:

Mr. Green: <<The Tea Party's leaders tend to feel this way, and too many of the Tea Party's members condone or accept the racism of others in their "movement.">>

Tom Tancredo at the Tea Party Convention: <<"People who could not spell the word vote or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House -- name is Barack Hussein Obama,">>

No racism there.

Guy Courts

Maarja Krusten - 3/18/2010

As someone whose primary historical interest is the presidency, I’m glad you mentioned the Fox News Channel. I considered myself a Republican starting in 1972 and self identified as a conservative during the Reagan years. I became an Independent around 1989, just as the Cold War, which I had followed closely as a voter since I cast my first vote for Richard Nixon in 1972, was starting to wind down.

Fox is strongly associated with Roger Ailes. Ailes served as a media consultant to Richard Nixon. He dealt with technical issues, not policy matters. (See
for one of his memos to Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.) Having once self identified as a conservative Republican in my younger days, I think Fox has served the Republican party very poorly. So much so that I’ve come to wonder how it might have done, if a communications expert more comfortable with history and critical thinking, and a better understanding of voters across a broad spectrum, such as David Gergen, had been the guiding force behind it. The problem with Fox’s business model lies in the contrast with how companies usually resolves issues, something which may be reflected in Ailes’s reaction to a recent column by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post.

Bruce Bartlett, economics expert and former Reagan advisor, pointed out last year that “The Fox News channel is a pure conservative/Republican network that does not pretend to be anything else. Personally, I have no problem with that. . . . The rise of talk radio was the foundation. . . As time has gone by, these guys have gone from just representing their own opinions to representing the conservative movement to representing the Republican Party to thinking they actually speak for the American people as a whole. Power and vanity have led them to lose touch with reality.

The Internet completed the circle and provided for complete detachment of conservatives from the mainstream media. They could now get 100% of their news filtered through a conservative lens. They no longer had to confront any facts they deemed inconvenient or without a ready-made response that either refuted them or interpreted them in a way conservatives could rationalize. The result is that many conservatives live in a cocoon as well, completely insulated from any facts or opinions that are counter to their worldview.”

Bartlett’s view is his own, you can agree with it or not. But his mention of a cocoon got me thinking about good business practices and how well performing corporations value 360 feedback. After reports of dissension within Fox surfaced this week, Ailes reportedly visited the Washington Bureau and told staff, "I was brought up to defend the family. If I couldn't defend the family I'd leave. I'd go to another family." Yet management experts recommend that bosses reward rather than shoot the messenger. While some things are appropriate to discuss internally rather than externally, the alternative never should be defend or leave. There should be an option of avoiding comment outside but staying inside to take a hard look at perceptions and to stay on to fight to improve a business.

Such an approach requires self awareness and backbone on the part of the executive. One of the best clips in Steve Pearlstein’s series on leadership at WaPo last year was the one in which a successful director of an organization said, “own your mistakes publicly.” He explained that it isn’t as if people don’t see the mistakes so it’s best to get out in front, own them, and move on to improve the company. Better to look brave and honest, it doesn’t weaken the executive, it strengthens him.

I used to watch Fox more than I do now, but started tuning out during 2003. Its presentations of current events during a time of Republican ascendancy seemed so filled with fear and anxiety rather than Reaganesque confidence and a sense that you can’t tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes. Could it have become a more robust messenger for conservatism and for the GOP has it been helmed by someone capable of merging Reagan’s sense of confidence with a courageous executive’s ability to look at the good, the bad, and the indifferent both in the political causes he supported and in management of a company? I don’t know. But it certainly seems to me that Fox could have avoided becoming the Jon Stewart bait it is now.

Stewart recently called Fox "the meanest sorority girl in the world.” But the real problem seems to be a fear of introspection and self analysis of the type all successful businesses must undergo, in order to improve their products and market share. Ailes’ Fox treats conservatism and the GOP as something incredibly fragile, requiring a defensive crouch and envelopment in a protective cocoon. As someone who once identified as a conservative, I don’t think that as an ideology, it is as weak and vulnerable as Fox would have one believe. The history-reading Gergen could have signaled more confidence had he been in charge. He could have woven together a strong fabric for the Fox News Network. Given Ailes' background as a technical expert and his apparent limitations in understanding how to attract moderates and centrists to a GOP leaning network or to reward rather than shoot the messenger internally, I doubt Ailes ever will be able to turn the network into something stronger.

Grant W Jones - 3/16/2010

People like Green are impervious to reason and facts. Most of those involved in the Tea Party movement do so because of their concerns over the nation's economic health and future due do a government that is quickly bankrupting the country.

He might try reading what Tea Partiers have actually written:

Peter Kovachev - 3/16/2010

That's incredible, Mr Green, you seem to have a handle on the thoughts of the leaders of the Tea Party movement, or "movement," as you put it. Maybe they eat babies and hate puppies too?

Peter Kovachev - 3/16/2010

"Insurgency," "tea-baggers," "black helicopters," "right-wing paranoia" and "promotional sills of Fox news." ???

Not a happy camper are you, Mr Isserman? In fact a tad bitter, yes?In watching the latest hilarities of your Fearless Leader and his Vice-Buffoon, I can't blame you much for your reactive snobbery and small-minded peevishness, though.

Left-wing fantasists poured all their hopes and dreams into a bungler whose incompetence appears to be bottomless. Not your typical messiah, no. And then there is the cringe-inducing series of tragi-comedic disasters and the humiliating spectacle least for snobby establishment types... of a bunch of "soccer-moms" and "plumbers" almost effortlessly dismantling the Great Thoughts and Heroic Plans of a bunch of the White House radicals in itchy new suits. Such a shocking affront to the New Nobility!

Had you actually watched Fox, the only network that didn't swoon and have shivers going up their legs or whatnot, maybe you could have avoided getting suckered by the most PR-heavy, hollow, if not outright misleading campaign in US history.

R Jeffery Kiser - 3/16/2010

One can paint any group to be extreme. Does that mean the democrats have their roots in the recent more violent Black Panther movement? Or perhaps the stronger socialist movements of fascism? Of course not, though it makes it nice to dehumanize a group in that way, it does not reflect the reality. It only leads one to dismiss the accuser.

Michael Green - 3/14/2010

They also fit in well with the era with which the Articles were associated--or not. At that time, slavery existed in the U.S. While it was not yet so widely defended as it would be in the South during the mid-19th century, it had defenders. But most Americans at the time agreed that non-white people were inferior. The Tea Party's leaders tend to feel this way, and too many of the Tea Party's members condone or accept the racism of others in their "movement."

Maurice Isserman - 3/14/2010

While I suspect Louise W. Knight and I agree on more than we disagree in terms of contemporary politics, I question the premise of her article on the tea party movement (or at least its headline), i.e., "The Tea Party Movement has Deep American Roots." How deep are those roots? Do they, in fact, stretch back to the late 18th century? The Tea Party movement has far more recent prototypes than the anti-federalists: the John Birchers of the 1950s and 1960s, the anti-black helicopter hysterics of the 1990s among them. And in their current insurgency, the tea-baggers represent the conjunction of mid-late 20th century right-wing paranoia with the promotional skills of Fox News. Why dignify them with an unearned linkage to the more thoughtful anti-Federalists?