Voltaire once said, “What a heavy burden is a name that has become famous too soon.” And fame has certainly come very quickly to the national phenomena known as “tea parties.” Any novice-level political junkie can describe with reasonable accuracy what these events are about and the key issues that concern the attendees.
Anger at an intrusive federal government and out-of-control spending is at the heart of these events. Yet what has been the sum total physical expression of outrage against the government from the tea parties? One box of tea hurled at the White House which, predictably, brought out overreacting Secret Service agents thinking some kind of al Qaeda explosive was buried within the Darjeeling.
An interesting question arises: just how far are the participants willing to go to voice their anger and frustration? Can they, for instance, spill over into civil disobedience?
The Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 was the final act of rising colonial anger against the Tea Act instituted by the British Crown. For those interested, the tax rate on tea that was supposedly paid by the colonialists was anywhere from 0.8% to 66%, depending on which numbers scholars use. There are even academics — such as Peter D.G. Thomas in “The Townshend Duties Crisis” (1987) — who argue that the Tea Party revolt was not in response to any tax increase. Whatever the precipitating events were, scholars can agree that Britain imposed a series of mandates on the people of a faraway land and that they, in turn, revolted.
And now we have the modern-day use of the moniker “tea party.” It is disrespectful to the revolutionaries — those men of action in Boston in 1773 — to use that label unless the participants are willing to use action, whether real political action or civil disobedience, to back up their words.
Why is this action-potential critical? Two major reasons stand out. First, the modern tea party phenomenon, unless it incorporates a potential for action, risks serving as a mass counseling session where like-minded and angry people vent frustration but do nothing more. Screaming and yelling can lead to a cathartic release of pent-up emotions that may provide temporary relief; but the effect will not last forever. Protesters will no longer see the efficacy in tea parties. This possible course of events would eat up precious time, and a critical moment where real political action could have taken place will expire.
Second, if the tea parties only serve as a place to vent anger, politicians will no longer pay any credence to the potential these events hold as truly revolutionary forums. An oft-cited rumor holds that former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, in response to a large march concerning U.S. policy in Latin America, supposedly said: “Let them protest all they want, so long as they pay their taxes.” Whether true or not, the Haig quotation highlights the fact that a politically passive activity (such as marching) is given no credit by politicians, as opposed to an act of civil disobedience (such as a refusal to pay taxes).
Unfortunately, the tea parties have already given the impression that they are forums for words only, and those words had better be carefully chosen. On April 15, 2009, at a tea party rally in Austin, Governor Rick Perry of Texas hinted at the possible secession of his state. He later backtracked on these comments after stirring a huge, and sometimes acrimonious, debate. In a retreat that would have made Napoleon proud, he stated unequivocally, “Of course, I have never advocated for secession and never will.” This is a textbook definition of “sandbagging” one’s supporters. More importantly, it shows how the mainstream can rally against a tea party speaker when he or she suggests action, and the tea party organizations will not support advocates of real action.
By their naked eagerness to attend tea party gatherings, rank-and-file politicians show that they no longer recognize them as forums for revolutionary change. A recent tea party in Fargo, North Dakota, was attended by the state governor (who, coincidentally, was running for the U.S. Senate), and the featured speaker was Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachman. Other speakers at these events have included now New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Rep. Tom McClintock, and former GOP presidential and senatorial candidate Alan Keyes, to name a few.
Probably the most bizarre example of the tea party movement’s becoming more mainstream and less a forum for action came on February 7, when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin addressed the so-called tea party “national convention” in Nashville, and she said: “America is ready for another revolution.” The attendees cheered. A more reasonable response, from true revolutionaries, would have been: “Huh?!” But for a 5% swing in the vote in the 2008 election, the person calling for revolution would have been right in the heart of the “Beast” that the crowd was allegedly cheering to get free from.
What this should emphasize is the risk of the tea party phenomenon becoming just another campaign forum for conservative politicians, a place where people who claim to run against the Beltway mindset can speak to cheering crowds about the change that may be a-coming. These crowds may have forgotten that some of the same speakers may have helped to explode the size of government under the Bush presidency. How seriously can attendees consider true revolutionary action when they hear a politician saying the equivalent of “I swear I love you,” “the check is in the mail,” or “I promise I used protection”?
The modern-day organizers of the tea parties should ask themselves if they are honoring the legacy of the Sons of Liberty. If not, they owe it to the true revolutionaries’ legacies (and the honest labeling of their movement) to call the tea parties by another name.