Patrick Allitt: How to Succeed in Politics

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Patrick Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University and author of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (Yale University Press, 2009).]

IN 1773, Sam Adams led the Boston Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, onto three British freighters, seized their cargo of imported Indian tea and threw it into the harbor. They were afraid that the tea, unexpectedly cheap because it had been exempted from the usual British reexport tariff, would tempt Massachusetts consumers to abandon their principled resistance to taxation without representation. A later historian jokingly referred to the event as the “Boston Tea Party.” Today, anti-big-government agitators are channeling their ancestors’ ire as they build a Tea Party movement of their own. Some pundits speculate that the group could end up forming a new political party for the first time in well over a century, to rank with the Democrats and Republicans. They too must be kidding. Everything we know about political parties tells us that the Tea Party is not one and is not going to become one.

For the last year and a half, indignant citizens have been holding rallies around the country to protest the bank bailout, the stimulus package and the health-care bill. At a massive Washington, DC rally on September 12, 2009, and at a Nashville conference this February, Tea Party demonstrators denounced big government, swelling federal debts, financial rescue for failing homeowners and creeping socialism. They carried pictures of President Obama, sometimes in the guise of Hitler, sometimes in that of Che Guevara, which suggests an equal-opportunity approach to hating big government. Posters of the clenched fist and references among spokesmen to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, on the other hand, hinted at an affinity for the more libertarian and anarchic side of the sixties-era New Left. Few of the demonstrators voiced positive political ideas, however, contenting themselves instead with old bromides like “Don’t tread on me” and “Just leave us alone.” In April, a press statement from Minneapolis announced the formation of the National Tea Party Federation (NTPF), a center dedicated to countering misinformation in the media. It emphasized the variety and decentralization of the groups it represented and made no claim to be the voice of a new party.

To be effective, a political party needs to be strong at the center and strong in the grass roots. So far the Tea Party’s members are scattered all over the map, geographically and on the issues. Different groups have different preoccupations and react with varying degrees of annoyance to government projects. Few have even a local structure or discipline. Indeed, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party’s pinup girl, denied that membership in the new movement was incompatible with membership in the GOP.

Still, some activists seem to be hinting at the possibility of a new departure. Palin herself had harsh words for big-government Republicans and she endorsed challenges to several incumbents later in the spring. She also intimated that the national Tea Party was something more than a mere ginger group reminding the Republicans of their libertarian heritage. What does it want, and what does it tell us about the relationship between ideas and parties in American politics? Why, moreover, is it certain to fail?...
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