Joe Ellis on the Tea Party Movement

Wednesday, March 3, 2010 - 12:00

Questioning Authority recently tapped Joe Ellis, Professor of History on the Ford Foundation, for his thoughts on the Tea Party movement. Here’s what he had to say.

QA: The Tea Party movement has been gaining strength and notoriety in the past year. Who are they and what do they want?

JE: The Tea Party movement is a disparate collection of constituencies with quite different political agendas. But they tend to share a common enemy, which is any potent projection of government power. Government for most members of the movement is "them" rather than "us." As a group, they represent a stratum of American society that has lost ground economically over the last three decades during the Second Gilded Age, and attribute their decline to the bankers on Wall Street and the politicians and lobbyists in Washington. Like the slightly deranged anchorman in Network, they are "mad as hell and won't take it anymore."

QA: Is this a new phenomenon or has the U.S. experienced similar movements throughout its history?

JE: The antigovernment ethos has a long history in the United States. Its origins lie in the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence, which locates all rights in the sovereign individual and depicts any faraway government as an alien force. There is a little-known classic about the periodic waves of protest Tea-Party style by Richard Hofstadter called The Paranoid Style in American Politics. What's new about the Tea Party movement is the 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, and talk radio, all of which amplify and organize its passionate intensity.

QA: How effective is the movement likely to be?

JE: It's too soon to tell. In the short run, the movement is likely to enhance Republican influence after the midterm elections. But the danger for Republicans is a wholesale takeover by the Tea Party zealots and a landslide for the Democrats in 2012 as a result. In the long run, the best precedent is the Populist Party, which lost big-time in the election of 1896, but major planks in its platform were eventually adopted by the mainstream parties over the next 20 years. I'm dubious about the Tea Party movement following that precedent, however, because all the big problems we face--health care, global warming, the casino culture of Wall Street--require government power to solve, and government power is the Big Anathema to the Tea Party folks.

QA: The self-styled "Tea Partiers" derive their name from the original Tea Party movement that preceded the American Revolutionary War. Is their claim to this heritage legitimate?

JE: There is a surface similarity. The original Tea Party people were protesting Parliament's right to tax them without their consent. Sam Adams organized a group of aggrieved Bostonians--it really wasn't a mob--to toss the tea overboard rather than pay the tax. But the original Tea Partiers were not represented in Parliament. That was the core of their grievance. Modern Tea Partiers have elected representatives. They just don't like what they are doing. In that sense they are more like the Shay's rebels of 1786 or the Whiskey rebels of 1794, who objected to what their elected representatives had decided. Their recent convention at Mount Vernon is richly ironic, because George Washington would have threatened to string them all up.

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