The Tea Party’s Forebears Are a Movement of the RichRoundup: Historians' Take
tags: Tea Party, income tax
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.
It is an unfortunate irony of our age that describing academics’ work as “journalism” and journalists’ work as “history” risks insult to the respective authors. Each profession suffers tremendously from its prejudice against the other. Academics rarely write with sufficient clarity to communicate outside their specific disciplines and often neglect to draw useful conclusions, lest they be accused of overreaching their evidence; conversely, journalists rarely imbue their stories with sufficient context to reveal a situation’s underlying complexity. As a consequence, even relatively conscientious reporting can be misleading—often focusing to a fault on the “new” in “news.”
Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, has written an eloquent and powerful new book that demonstrates exactly the kind of history our benighted public debate so desperately needs. Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent examines the historical predecessors of the contemporary Tea Party movement. Martin’s work expands not only our knowledge of American history but also of the American present.
Martin writes that, “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics” throughout our history. Such movements tend to occur when their leaders take “advantage of the structure of political opportunities established by the American constitutional order.” This is not simply a “recurrent phenomenon.” The rich and their allies “practice a tradition” of recruiting the lower classes to their cause, Martin explains, “because people learn from and imitate the past.” In the case of the anti-tax movement, this tradition began “before the Reagan era and before Barry Goldwater ran for president—before, even, the New Deal.”...