Charles Lane: The Tea Party, and a History of Going to Extremes

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[Charles Lane is a columnist for the Washington Post.]

The American patriots who flung crates of imported tea into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773 were acting against their countrymen's economic interest. The Tea Act, adopted by the British Parliament, allowed direct shipping of the East India Company’s surplus tea to North America, bypassing middlemen in London and reducing the price in the colonies. But that price still included a tax, enacted by a parliament in which the Americans were not represented. To purchase the tea would violate the principle of “no taxation without representation.” And so the Sons of Liberty chucked it into the water.

Recall this history as you consider today’s Tea Party – and other zealous movements at the other end of the ideological spectrum. Regardless of whether one sympathizes with the Tea Party, MoveOn.org, or none of the above, it should be possible to recognize what they have in common: an attitude. And it is characteristically American. Call it the spirit of anti-compromise.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a pragmatic nation. Problem-solving and compromise have a long history in American politics. So, too, however, do extremism and polarization. As the Boston Tea Party itself illustrates, this country was born in a fit of uncompromising zeal.

No less a patriot than Benjamin Franklin was horrified by the Tea Party. From his vantage point in England, where he was attempting to negotiate with King George III’s government, the destruction of the tea struck Franklin as an “act of violent injustice on our part.” The Philadelphian spoke for many moderate colonists. But the Sons of Liberty were more intent on making a point than solving problems. Between their uncompromising attitude and that of the Crown, the situation became polarized. Franklin and other moderates had to choose sides. The Revolution was on....

President Obama protests that his health care policy is “centrist,” invoking past support for similar ideas from such hoary Republican stalwarts as Bob Dole. But for today’s Tea Party, the very invocation of Dole’s name, to the extent anyone still recognizes it, is a reason to oppose the plan. And it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Obama managed to bring his own party’s base around to support the bill; some are still furious that it lacks a public option. Perhaps if Scott Brown’s Tea Party-backed victory in Massachusetts had not enabled Obama to recast the issue as a stark matter of political survival, and a polarized battle between the people and the insurance companies, the Democratic base would not have cooperated....

This could actually be a positive development, if the ideological purge underway among Republicans and Democrats gives rise to a new party of outcast moderates. But don’t hold your breath. The situation reminds me of the second half of the 1850s, when the combined impact of the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the breakdown of the old Whig-Jacksonian party system. I don’t think we are headed toward another civil war, of course. But I do expect more partisan vitriol and deadlock before this cycle of polarization ultimately runs its course. Given this country’s problems (economic stagnation, debt, terrorism), that scenario looks dangerous enough.
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