The Mysterious Mystery of the Tea Party

This past weekend the New York Times published an opinion essay entitled “The Very Angry Tea Party.” Its author makes two main claims: (1) Tea Party activists are very, very, VERY angry; and (2) they are subscribers to a “metaphysical fantasy,” believe in “the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods,” have a “passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs,” and act out of an unreasoning fit of immature emotion just like “an enraged, jilted lover.”

This sounds just a wee bit overwrought (I won’t call it seething anger). But is any of it true? One cannot judge from the article, since it contains no actual analysis of the Tea Party movement or its members, no examination of their words or their documents or their arguments.

But did I mention that the author believes they are angry? In his article one finds all of the following:

  • “The Very Angry Tea Party” (the title of the article)
  • “seething anger”
  • “the anger of the Tea Party members”
  • “an enraged, jilted lover”
  • “the incubus of Tea Party rage”
  • “fierce anger that pervades its meetings and rallies”
  • “animosities”
  • “passionate anger of the Tea Party”
  • “exorbitant character of the anger Tea Party members express”
  • “such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs”
  • “galvanizing anger and rage”
  • “hysterical Tea Party incriminations”
  • “great anger”
  • “rage”
  • “fury”
  • “the rage and anger”
  • “atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods”
  • “nihilistic rage”
  • “such rage”
  • “the anger of the Tea Party”

Why, they are so angry that they even have a “fierce logic”!

And the second claim, that they are so fundamentally misguided? The author claims that they are in the throes of “the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency,” believing in the “metaphysical fantasy” that “each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions”; the Tea Party activists are “manufacturing, and even inventing, the idea of a sovereign individual who becomes, through them and by virtue of them, the ultimate source of authority” (emphases in the original). They are, moreover, “suppressing to the point of disappearance the manifold ways that individuality is beholden to a complex and uniquely modern form of life.”

A straw man. No one literally believes that he is entirely self-sufficient, that he is not dependent on a community, that he does not need the cooperation and assistance of untold others to get the goods and services on which he daily depends. That indeed is one of the great glories of markets, a point made repeatedly by Tea Party activists, that markets require widespread and far-flung cooperation that is mutually beneficial.

And “inventing” the notion of a sovereign individual? Perhaps the author has not read John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Governmentfrom which America’s founders, and many of the Tea Party members, take explicit inspiration—which argued that people were by nature both free and equal, and that this equality begins with their natural sovereign jurisdiction over themselves. Or perhaps he is not aware that the Tea Partiers today are drawing on quite a venerable tradition that includes, of course, the 1776 Declaration of Independence, but also includes the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the English Leveller movement of the 1640s, the 1628 Petition of Right, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, and indeed the 1215 Magna Carta. This tradition, and each of these documents and events, affirmed the independence of individuals from the state, the subservience of the state to its people, and the right of the people to demand redress when their state became destructive of their “natural”—i.e., antecedent to the state—rights.

These precedents and this historical tradition do not by themselves justify positions for which Tea Party activists stand, but they are sufficient, I believe, to warrant actual attention. Whatever else might be true of the Tea Part activists, they have not invented these ideas.

The author uses Hegel—yes: not Lilburne or Locke or Montesquieu or Hume or even Kant, but Hegel—to criticize the Tea Partiers by claiming that they fail to understand that all of us “are bound to one another as firmly as lovers are.” He claims that the “rage” of the Tea Party is a result of jilted love: “when our love goes bad I am suddenly, absolutely dependent on someone for whom I no longer count”; “All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved.”

But of course she can and will survive. Yes, the Tea Party activists feel betrayed by a government they believe should protect their life, liberty, and property, but has now instead come to be a chief threat to them; yes, not all Tea Party activists all have exactly the same beliefs; and yes, some of the beliefs of some of them may actually conflict with some beliefs of others. Sure, yes, of course. But that is true for all political movements—indeed, for all human associations of any kind.

The federal government has been growing in scope and authority for some time now, and recently the rate of that growth has accelerated enormously. By some estimates, the total net present value of our public debt totals some $130 trillion, or approximately $433,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That, and not Tea Party anger, is what is “not just disturbing, but frightening,” and it, more than anything else, is what has animated the Tea Party. No metaphorical jilted lovers, no metaphysical fantasies: the cold, hard reality of a fiscally reckless government that increasingly looks out of control and is endangering the freedom and prosperity of this and future generations.

What is so mysterious about that?

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