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Happy Birthday, Tea Party

Remember, remember the sixteenth of December.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By RICHARD SAMUELSON
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Yale law professor Dan Kahan recently conducted a study of today’s Tea Party. “I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension,” he noted. Instead, he found that people who identify with the Tea Party are slightly more knowledgeable about science than the average American. The study’s conclusions brought him up short. “I don’t know a single person who identifies with the tea party,” he realized. Reading the New York Times, the Huffington Post, Politico, and other like sources gave him a false and biased view of the Tea Party. To his credit, Kahan was happy to have the correction. Many others are not so open-minded. In both 1773 and today, the notion of middle-class protest simply does not register with the leadership class.

The two Tea Parties also share a concern with constitutional structure. In the 1760s and 1770s, some British leaders wanted to create an American “civil list”—a permanent elite with lifetime jobs to administer the colonies. That would bring the empire under proper management. In our day, we have civil servants—often graduates of elite institutions with impressive credentials—who have jobs for life and who, in effect, write our legal code, enforce it, and judge whether citizens have run afoul of the rules. Some of the modern Tea Party protest is directed against this modern—perhaps postmodern—aristocracy that threatens to alienate government from the common citizen. We should also recall that the modern Tea Party follows up the “Porkbusters” movement of the George W. Bush years. Pork-barrel legislation is, in some ways, the twenty-first-century equivalent of the pensions that George III would dispense when he needed votes in Parliament.

In sum, both Tea Parties reflect a frustration with distant elites who can hardly be bothered to know or care what most Americans think, and who wish to regulate us more than we would like, often without our direct consent. Those at the center seem to regard many of the people on the periphery as simpleminded plebeians whose opinions are hardly worth considering, motivated as they are by ignorance or, in current parlance, “racism.” Tea Party backers, meanwhile, are viewed by the establishment as self-serving pirates who wish to line their pockets, with the Koch brothers in the role of John Hancock.

The original Tea Party was a New England affair, while today’s is a national protest. But many of our Tea Partiers, like their colonial ancestors, want America to be that “city on a hill.” They believe that what is special about America is under attack, and they are, metaphorically, throwing tea into Boston Harbor in the hopes of forcing the establishment to take notice and persuading the rest of the country to rally alongside them.

Richard Samuelson is associate professor of history at California State University, San Bernardino. He is writing a book on John Adams’s constitutional thought.

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