The Tea Party in Politics: Why the Event in Boston Harbor Keeps on Appealing to Conservatives

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Woden Teachout is the author of Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism (Basic Books, 2009).

With the Fourth of July, the Tea Parties are out in force again.  Begun in February by a Seattle blogger and introduced on national television by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s "rant heard round the world," the movement is a protest against the stimulus package, existing and possible future taxes, and, at its broadest, the Obama administration.  Though numbers are contested, it may have held as many as 700 gatherings on April 15, and Tea Party events are planned in over 1,300 cities for Independence Day.  There are, of course, questions about who is behind the Tea Parties.  But whether or not these demonstrators represent a real grassroots, it is clear that the movement has strong support from conservative organizations like FreedomWorks, dontGO, and Americans for Prosperity, as well as the Fox News channel.

One of the most obvious and striking aspects of the movement is its political use of a historical symbol.  In this long and rich American tradition, the Tea Party has a history as a conservative symbol.  While it has been claimed by different political forces throughout its history, the conservative claim has been most frequent and insistent.  Radical forces have appeared on the centennials – reformers arguing for women’s suffrage in 1873 and six protestors in colonial dress dumping oil drums and a tarred-and-feathered Nixon effigy into the harbor in 1973 – while conservatives have contested those meanings.  But those who celebrate the Tea Party at other times, selecting it from the host of other symbols available, tend to be conservative. 

The major invocations of the dumping of the tea make this point.  The Tea Party was first used to minimize social disruption in the 1830s, after a long period in which it was not publicly commemorated; when it did appear, it was depicted as a far tamer event than it had actually been.  The 1830s were a period of intense class conflict, when journeymen stood on public stages claiming that “the Revolution is yet unfinished” and demanding new rights.  During this time one of the original participants appeared – now well into his 90s – in Boston.  George Robert Twelves Hewes was feted by the Whigs: featured at a Fourth of July celebration, painted, interviewed, and chronicled as the subject of two biographies.  These Whig depictions emphasized Hewes’s old age and veteran status, portraying him as an old patriot; a decision which effectively erased the class consciousness that had inspired his original action. 

Conservatives also claimed the Tea Party at the centennials of 1873 – invoking “the great principles of Law and Order” – and 1973, in which the speaker questioned the wisdom of heaving the tea overboard.  And they seized on it again in 1998, the ideological precursor to today’s movement.  In 1998, two Republican congressmen appeared on the side of a replica ship, holding a chest labeled TEA and containing the federal tax code.  They threw the chest into the harbor, upon which two protestors in a life raft fell tipped the water, shouting “Your tax will sink the working family.”  This protest was different than the events of the 1830s and the 1873 centennial, which focused on issues of social class.  It drew instead on the issue of taxes.  But it was also, incipiently, about rebellion.

Recently, there have been two more invocations of the event.  In 2006, disaffected Libertarians formed the “Boston Tea Party,” a political party dedicated to reducing the size of government and withdrawing American troops from around the world.  And, of course, there is the Tea Party movement today.

Why is the destruction of the tea particularly attractive to conservatives?  It forms a stark contrast to other American historical icons, such as the Statue of Liberty, which has been occupied by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Puerto Rican nationalists among others. The Statue has been invoked, again and again, to expand the circle of those who enjoy American rights and thus accelerate social change.  The Tea Party, by contrast, provides a way to say “stop”: it is used as a symbol of rejection rather than a plea or a demand.  In each instance when it has been invoked, the sitting president has been a Democrat -- Andrew Jackson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama – and in each case, the Tea Party has been an incipient rebuke to the sitting administration.  And in 1998 and again this spring, the Tea Party actually worked to invoke a spirit of rebellion against that administration.  By aligning Obama with King George, it offers an instance of revolt that is threatening – in its invocation of direct action -- while remaining safely patriotic.

The Tea Party has also attracted Republicans in the last fifteen years because of the way it spotlights the issue of taxes.  Whatever the motivations of the rank and file members, the historical reference is useful to party operatives: it provides a way to shift attention away from social issues and re-emphasize the Republican party as the one holding the line on taxes.  And while most Americans will see lower taxes under Obama, the stimulus package will certainly keep taxes high for generations to come.  So the Tea Party helps to redefine the Republican party, while at the same time highlighting an American tradition of resistance to taxes.

Finally, the Tea Party speaks to the broader reason that makes historical symbols politically effective, whether used by right or left: it invokes a powerful sense of who we are as a country.   In politics, the fact of an appeal to history is frequently more important than what that history suggests.  Certainly, the historical symbols that appear at the rallies are an eclectic bunch.  These symbols center on the Boston Tea party, with signs saying “Taxed Enough Already” and “Trouble is Brewing,” along with innumerable tea bags.  But proponents borrow freely from other Revolutionary events and beyond.  Photographs of the protests from earlier this year show a lively mishmash of historical references: a man in colonial garb riding a horse; rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” flags;  a Statue of Liberty mask; Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat pork!”; and a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance.  And the American flag came along for the ride, leading parades, dotting the crowds, and bedecking signs.  

Indeed, the flag is the symbol that best illustrates the political power of this turn to history.  It is, of course, a historical icon that has been invoked far more frequently than the Tea Party.  And it too is seen as conservative, in the sense of an association with the Republican Party for the last forty years.  But it has a wild and rambunctious political history that spans both right and left. The remarkable thing about the flag is how little we know of this history – less even, than we know of the Tea Party.  If the destruction of the tea has been flattened and mythologized, the history of the flag has been even more so: down to the nub of a myth about Betsy Ross.  That lack of knowledge has been key to the flag’s power.  It allows the symbol to be our national Rorschach blot:  a reflection of our hopes and fears at any one moment. 

As both the flag and the Tea Party show, politicians who successfully invoke history often rely on public forgetfulness:  they erase the specificity of the original event in favor of a broad and generalized silhouette.  There is an inverse relationship between the detail of a historical icon and its present-day usefulness: the fewer details, the more the symbol is open for meaning-making from the present.  There is no question that the historical reference of the Tea Party has been key to the movement’s success.  Other movements have done something similar: think of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King invoking the Declaration of Independence in his “I have a dream” speech.  Our history has a deep-seated hold on our sense of what it means to be an American.  When social movements call on that history, they invoke that sense of citizenship and nationhood.  In retrospect, it becomes clear just how powerful a political force American history can be.