Where does the tea party philosophy come from? One hint is in its name.
Historians and political scientists will be examining the tea party movement for years. Some are starting to lay out what they see as the philosophical underpinnings of this unique insurgency.
It’s still unclear what contribution the tea party movement – its grass-roots element, its behind-the-scenes funding apparatus, and the surging national candidates it’s brought forward – will make to the good of the republic.
But one thing for sure: It’s a dream come true for political science departments around the world. It may well do for poli sci what Watergate heroes Woodward and Bernstein did for journalism. Let a thousand doctoral dissertations bloom!
In a nutshell, the movement’s philosophy can be summed up in its name and imagery: “Taxation without representation,” which in the 21st century means the size and complexity of government. Strip away all the sillier elements (President Obama’s birth certificate) and sometimes threatening fringe (guns and occasional hints of racism) and that’s pretty much it.
Does it line up with big business types pushing the same agenda for many years through K Street lobbyists and Chambers of Commerce? (That’s you, Koch brothers.) It matters not to most tea partyers.
Many news outlets (including the Monitor) have tried to figure out the tea party, not an easy task since there is no such thing as the “Tea Party” per se. It’s more scattered than organized in any traditional sense, and sometimes there are conflicts within the movement.
The “Tea Party of Nevada,” for instance, has its own candidate running for the US Senate even though GOP candidate Sharron Angle – who may well send Senate majority leader Harry Reid into involuntary retirement – has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.
Two recent articles attempt to look at the historical roots of the tea party movement.
When the Great Recession hit, Mr. Green writes, libertarian Paul “was ready and waiting.”
“He is not the Tea Party’s founder (there isn’t one), or its culturally resonant figure (that’s Sarah Palin), but something more like its brain, its Marx or Madison,” he writes. “He has become its intellectual godfather – and its actual father, in the case of its brightest rising star, his son Rand Paul, Kentucky’s GOP Senate nominee.”
“The Tea Party has overrun the Republican Party everywhere from Alaska to Kentucky to Maine, and a version of Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve just passed the Senate unanimously en route to becoming law,” Green reports. “Today, on matters of economic politics, Paul is at least as significant as any of the Republicans he shared the stage with in the 2007 South Carolina [presidential primary] debate. And has anyone noticed that he’s a fixture on Fox News?”
For Ron Paul, a libertarian gadfly within the Republican Party, his political philosophy was formed when he was in medical school and he read Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 work “The Road to Serfdom.” This led him to Mr. Hayek’s mentor, Ludwig von Mises, and to Mr. von Mises’s argument against any government interference in free-market capitalism.
Many tea partyers (indeed, many Americans) may not be familiar with Hayek or von Mises, but the work of these Austrian economists undergirds much of what the tea party movement is all about, writes Green. “With the Tea Party gathering force, [Ron] Paul is at last where he has always wanted to be: in the vanguard of a national movement.”
Now flip over to the New Yorker and Sean Wilentz’s recent piece titled “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots.” (OK, OK. The Atlantic and the New Yorker may be seen as elitist publications, but let that go for now.)
But it’s not just Mr. Beck’s pro-tea party broadcast shtick, which draws millions of listeners and viewers every week. Or the “Beck University” he launched last summer, an online program offering a “unique learning experience bringing together a variety of experts in American History.” (One month for $9.95 or a full year for $74.95.)
Wilentz’s point is that “Beck’s version of American history relies on lessons from his own acknowledged inspiration, the late right-wing writer W. Cleon Skousen, and also restates charges made by the John Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch.”
And, he adds, “The popularity of Beck’s broadcasts, which now reach two million viewers each day, has brought neo-Birchite ideas to an audience beyond any that Welch or Skousen might have dreamed of.”
Wilentz walks the reader through the history of Birch-derived thinking and political activity through the post-war era to the present.
Will everybody agree with his analysis or conclusions, or with Green’s in The Atlantic? Of course not. But they’re a good place to start in trying to understand one of the most interesting political phenomena in recent decades.