Walter Russell Mead: Drinking Tea in America Today

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at The-American-Interest.com.]

At the tea parties here in glamorous Queens we make sure we serve genuine Devonshire clotted cream with the scones and we keep our pinkies carefully extended while lifting the delicate porcelain cups to our lips, but a very different kind of Tea Party has my friends in the upscale media and policy worlds gravely concerned. To hear them talk, all the know-nothings, wackadoo birther wingnuts, IRS plane bombers, Christian fundamentalists out to turn the US into a theocracy, the flat earthers and the racists have somehow joined together into a force that is as politically formidable as it morally and intellectually contemptible. These Tea Partiers, I am frequently told, are ‘reactionaries’. They long for an older, safer and whiter America — a more orderly place where their old fashioned values were unchallenged, one in which ethnic minorities weren’t in their faces, gays weren’t demanding acceptance, and in general life looked more like “Ozzie and Harriet” and less like “South Park.”

I’m sure that description fits some of the people at some of the Tea Parties, but I think it misses the point. Yes, the Tea Partiers represent something very old in American life and in some ways they want a return to traditional American values, but the traditional American value that inspires them the most is the value of revolutionary change. The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

That doesn’t mean that everything populists want works out. Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States caused a depression in the short term and then left the country with a lousy, crash-prone financial system for the next eighty years. His immensely popular Indian Removal Act that sent the eastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma was no triumph of justice and compassion. And while a later generation of populists gave women the vote, it also brought in Prohibition....

Today in the United States many of our core institutions are fundamentally out of sync with reality: they cost more than we can pay but they don’t do what we need. We have colleges our people cannot afford — and that often leave graduates without a basic grounding in either the history of our civilization or the practicalities of contemporary life. We have a health system that we cannot pay for and which fails to cover enough people. We have a public school system which has been failing too many of our children for far too long, costs unconscionably large amounts of money considering its poor performance — and vested interests block necessary reforms. Our federal, state and local governments are locked into an employment system and mode of organization that we cannot pay for — and that does not do the job. Our retirement system is a time bomb and all our political class can do is watch the fuse burn. We cannot regulate our financial industry effectively — and we cannot live without a financial system that remains innovative and dynamic. We are fighting a global conflict whose name we dare not speak against an enemy we do not know how to defeat and in a world that is more volatile and fluid than it has been since World War Two we are very far from any kind of national consensus (or even thoughtful conversation) about what our priorities and strategies should be....

My guess would be that the Tea Party movement is part of a very big wave. The link between a business driven agenda of modernization and reform and a populist agenda for empowerment, deregulation and attacks on privileged professions which are also costly economic bottlenecks is what, historically, has driven many of the populist movements that change the face of the country. That was true in the Jacksonian era and again during the progressive era and the New Deal when the desires of a left of center populism meshed with corporate needs for a stronger national framework of policy and regulation. It was true when the Republican Party pushed through the wave of changes and restructurings in the 1860s that ushered in the rise of the national industrial economy. It is equally true of the right of center populism that now seems to be taking shape, and potentially this movement could have the kind of impact on the country that the original Jacksonians did.

What this means for conventional politics is harder to predict. American populism is notoriously turbulent and unstable. As populist energy shifted from the pro-slavery Democrats in the twenty years before the Civil War, different movements like the Know-Nothings and the Free Soilers rose and fell until the new Republican Party harnessed northern and midwestern populist sentiment together with the nationalist vision of the rising industrial and railroad interests. (Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just the leader of a populist political revolt; he was a railroad corporate lawyer who combined populist politics with Henry Clay style nationalist economic ideas.) Crackpots and wackadoos often surface and achieve some temporary notoriety before the sorting out process of political exposure and debate winnows out the leaders from the loudmouths. At the moment the Tea Party seems to be more at the fermentation stage; the movement is still finding its feet and in terms of both program and personnel the new populists are still getting their act together....
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