Rethinking the Tea Partiers

The widespread perception of the Tea Party, both among the left and among the large swath of moderate Americans, has been an amalgamation of Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck—that is to say, of hyperbole, misinformation and uncensored rage. Last week, though, the New York Times and CBS conducted a study on the 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters and came back with findings that might upset the conventional wisdom.

Here are some samples: “Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class.” Most described their tax rates as “fair.” “A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president” and believe that “Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers.” Plus, “They actually are just as likely as Americans as a whole to have returned their census forms, though some conservative leaders have urged a boycott.”

Well. Hardly the purple-faced, libertarian anarcho-separatists Keith Olbermann often seems to have in mind. How to take this bucket of statistical cold water? Here are a couple of thoughts:

First of all, it’s worth noting that some of the poll’s findings pretty well correspond to what the public already thought. “Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married, and older than 45.” They hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans, generally. And while most Republicans say they are “dissatisfied” with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as “angry.” So there are undeniably distinctive race, class and, well, anger elements to the movement.

Second, it might be worth separating the activist tea partiers—I dub them the lunatics— from Tea Party supporters. Out of the poll’s sample, 20 percent of respondents described themselves as having contributed to the party, having attended an event, or both. These 20 percent (4 percent of the general public) “were more angry with Washington and intense in their desires for a smaller federal government and deficit.” In other words, the people who might turn the threat of secession into action make up a fifth of the movement. I’d bet—though there are no statistics from the poll to back me up—that these 20 percent are die-hard Palin fans, too.

I’m most intrigued, though, by the four-fifths of Tea Partiers who aren’t activists, who presumably sit in their living rooms and watch FOX News, and—while they aren’t thinking seriously about seceding from the United States—feel increasingly alienated from their government and worried about the future.

Feeling alienated from the government is not an anomaly in American politics, and just because you don’t dress up like 18th-century colonists and parade around Capitol Hill does not mean your politics are reasonable (even in current straits, that would be setting the bar a tad low). On the other hand, while I’ll concede that four percent of Americans may be crazy, I would like to assume that 18 percent of the population is not off their collective rockers. Plus, more substantively, all of the evidence points to Tea Partiers not as angry anarchists but as responsible, tax-paying citizens with a host of grievances toward Washington, D.C.

More and more when I watch the Tea Partiers with their ardent fears of big government and the soaring deficit, I think of the Anti-Federalists: the opponents of the federal Constitution who got their brief moment of fame in 1787 and 1788 and who, for the majority of Americans, have since sunk into historical oblivion except as “the guys who got it wrong.”

Overall, the Anti-Federalists did get it wrong. They thought, for instance, that the Senate and the president would join forces and combine their collective powers over treaty-making and government nominations to become a hereditary aristocracy. They believed that organizing into a confederacy of states was more conducive to effective free government than organizing under a collective national government with ultimate authority. (The Southern Confederacy’s magnificent organizational disarray during the Civil War neutralized that argument 70 years later.)

But the Anti-Federalists were not cranks or anarchists. Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee were among their numbers. They were older members of the revolutionary generation who were very aware of being gradually supplanted by the “new young men,” the James Madisons and Alexander Hamiltons. They sensed the end of an era and, resignedly, submitted to it. When they lost the battle over the Constitution, they didn’t move to Canada; instead, predicting the worst, they respected the democratic process and returned quietly home to their families and their farms. And there were issues—crucial issues—on which they were perceptively far ahead of their victorious opponents.

They feared a distant government partly because of its tendency toward tyranny but also because it privileged a certain type of leader: elite, distant, disinterested, and disconnected from the common good. Those of the middling and lower classes, the Anti-Federalists feared, would be left out of the process. They emphasized the particularities of America’s regions, and along with a focus on what might best be called “placeness” came a fear that a federal government with ultimate authority might commit to policies that hurt one part of the country at the expense of another.

The Anti-Federalists were undoubtedly dead wrong about the key issue of the day, whether or not to ratify the Constitution. America is better off because they lost the ratification battle. But most of the Anti-Federalists weren’t crazy, and some were extraordinarily perceptive. It would be worth re-exploring what they had to say. In the same way, and for all their flaws, it might not hurt once in a while to seriously consider the Tea Partiers.

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