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Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Thomas, Patrick, Tea, and Me

My thoughts on the Tea Party movement and two of the icons that illuminate it, Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry.

My Tea Glass Is Partly Empty

(The heading sounds stranger to you than to me. Russians drink their tea from glasses, not cups, as I did with my herbal tea when I was in Moscow.)

I don't know precisely what it means to be a member of the Tea Party, but I'm pretty sure I'm not one. Shall we analyze my credentials for a moment?

I've never been to a Tea Party event. I am not newly awakened to civic activity. I'm not a big fan of Glenn Beck, though I occasionally listen, and I think he has some insight into some matters. I listen to Sean Hannity now and then, too, but I am by no means Hannitized.

I'm more of a Rush Limbaugh fan, if you must know, but I don't think my fondness for his brand of entertainment or my appreciation for his incisive analysis of political matters qualifies me for the Tea Party -- especially not at a mere 20 minutes of listening per week, give or take.

I both see and hope for practical limits to the Tea Party's aspirations. I think one of the worst things that could happen to our politics in the next few years -- especially to the twin causes of freedom and limited, constitutional government -- is the Tea Party attempting to become a viable third political party.

See what I mean? I really don't belong in the Tea Party.

My Tea Glass Is Mostly Full

On the other hand, I've been watching the Tea Party movement as long as it's been around. I'm delighted that it exists. I share its taste for smaller government, fiscal responsibility, individual freedom, and upholding the Constitution. All in all, I think the fact that it exists is wonderful, and I'm not sure we could accomplish the revolutionary task that lies before us without it.

Attendance at my precinct caucus in March was higher than I've ever seen it, and Tea Partiers had something to do with it. By the way, they were quite civil and well-behaved, rather like air show crowds (a similar demographic). At the Utah State Republican Convention, half the delegates were first-timers, including me; I assume a lot of these were Tea Partiers, even if many others were not.

I've talked to and heard from a lot of people lately, Tea Partiers and otherwise, who have decided they can no longer ignore politics and government, as they've done for years or decades. So they're finding ways to get involved. The resultant sudden influx of untempered rookies into our politics has led to a sprinkling of coarseness and occasional bouts of tactical and strategic naivete, I suppose, but they'll learn. Many of them are learning quickly.

There's a lot of common sense in that crowd, and plenty of intellect. They know they have a lot to learn, and most of them are serious and diligent about learning it. They realize that getting involved is an essential part of learning to be involved. They're also studying the Constitution, the American founding generally, and other essential subjects in history, which they weren't taught well, or at least didn't learn well, in school.

There's another good thing happening. They're not just focused on national government and national issues; their interest and participation is beginning to spill over into local politics as well. This is yet another realm in which most of them are novices, but they're serious, and they're learning quickly. So I'm inclined to forgive them if they are occasionally bumptious and lack perspective.

Meanwhile, the word on the street -- Fleet Street, at least -- is that the Tea Partiers are rubes and barbarians. They have endured and will yet endure much slander, derision, and condescension. They have been called traitors and terrorists. They've been called un-American, but it doesn't seem to daunt them. They have some instinctive sense that they are the Americans in this picture. I stand by the tribute I paid to them last August here at the blog, in "Yankee Doodle, Keep It Up!"

I think most of them are in the public square for the long haul. I hope so. The defense of freedom against the soft tyranny of the welfare state is not a short battle; it is a protracted war. And the longer they're in it, the more experienced and effective they'll become. They'll increase their mastery of principles, policies, and the language in which both are discussed in serious circles. They'll get better at discerning the difference between a reasonable political compromise and a betrayal of principles.

Mr. Paine and Mr. Henry

Would you indulge a little history?

In the early 1770s, Thomas Paine was still in England, where he lobbied Parliament on several issues. In September 1774 he met Benjamin Franklin in London. Franklin suggested he emigrate to the American colonies, which he did almost immediately. He barely survived the voyage, but by January 1775 he had landed a position as a magazine editor, in which he began to distinguish himself.

The war with England was already under way in January 1776, when Paine published anonymously a pamphlet called Common Sense. Within three months, it sold 100,000 copies in the colonies, the free population of which was only about two million. It was often read aloud, in taverns and elsewhere; General Washington had it read aloud to his troops. In plain and forceful language it made the case for separation from Britain and advocated the rise of a radical democracy. Whatever else the pamphlet may or may not have achieved, it informed and invigorated the public debate about independence. A series of additional writings through the revolutionary years extended the same effect.

In 1787 Paine returned to England, but he was soon drawn to France by the revolution there, for his support of which he was eventually granted honorary French citizenship. Later, when the French political tide turned, he was arrested and narrowly escaped execution. He returned to the United States at President Thomas Jefferson's behest and finally died in New York City in 1809. His funeral drew only six mourners, and the press observed, in summarizing his life, that he "did some good and much harm." He writings after the American Revolution had done little to endear him to Americans, to be sure.

In years to come Thomas Paine's writings would influence Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Edison became an avid reader, calling Paine "one of the greatest of Americans."

The truth is probably somewhere between Edison's panegyric and the obituary's dismissal. Thomas Paine's contribution to American independence was enormous and probably essential; this cannot be gainsaid. For all that, he was drawn to revolution, not to government. He was a revolutionary, not a stateman.

For his part, Patrick Henry was a native Virginian, born there in 1736. He tried his hand at business and farming, before settling into a career as a lawyer. Eventually he served two terms as Governor of Virginia, the first beginning in 1776.

Henry was elected in 1765 to the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial legislature. Nine days after being sworn in, he proposed the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions in opposition to the infamous Stamp Act of that same year. He managed to secure the Resolutions' passage. Some thought their language to be treasonous; it was certainly anti-British. Among other things, taxation without representation was declared to be a violation of the rights of Englishmen. The Resolutions were an important precursor of American independence.

In 1775, during the Virginia legislature's consideration of possible military mobilization against the British, Patrick Henry galvanized the body -- and then the nation -- with a passionate speech in favor of armed rebellion. The last lines are well known and justly celebrated: "Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"

After the Revolution, he declined to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Despite the manifest inadequacies and dangers of the Articles of Confederation, he feared that any effort to replace them would tend towards monarchy. When that Convention produced our Constitution, he opposed it, declaring that it gave the federal government too much power, and that the presidency could turn into a monarchy. He was a delegate to the 1788 Virginia convention which ratified the Constitution; he voted nay. George Washington offered him the post of Secretary of State in 1795; he refused, because he opposed Washington's Federalist policies.

Patrick Henry admired the French Revolution much less than Thomas Paine did; its radicalism, its brutality, and its aftermath eventually led him to fear a similar revolution (or civil war) in the United States. This, in turn, led him finally to support Presidents Washington and Adams and their policies, until his death of stomach cancer in 1799.

For most of his political life, one might say, Patrick Henry was fundamentally a revolutionary -- so much so that he opposed ratification of the US Constitution. Despite that opposition, he play an absolutely crucial role; it is hard to imagine the necessary conditions for American independence existing in 1776 without Patrick Henry's contribution. 

Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry were alike in at least two respects: Their influential roles as revolutionaries were essential to the American founding -- and both men were at odds with the sort of government which their revolution ultimately produced.

Is There a Point, Already?

Why do I belabor these two biographies, in speaking of the Tea Party movement? Thanks for asking.

Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry have become icons of the movement. Glenn Beck's own Common Sense (2009) both celebrates Thomas Paine's influential pamphlet and pursues a similar end; it is almost a manifesto for the Tea Party. Patrick Henry is much-quoted among Tea Partiers, and one spin-off movement is the Patrick Henry Caucus, which advocates states' rights.

Paine and Henry are perfectly natural and appropriate as Tea Party icons, because the Tea Party movement is much like them in its essentials. I have come to believe that it is absolutely crucial to our present, somewhat revolutionary defense of our freedoms and the institutions which safeguard them; this recalls the pivotal roles of both men in the American founding. And I am persuaded that the Tea Party movement is in essence a revolutionary party, not a governing party -- just as these two of its icons were essentially revolutionaries, ill-suited to government in more tranquil times.

Better to Take Over Two Parties than to Become a Third

It's possible, I admit, for a third party to arise and take the place of one of the two major parties. It has happened before. But it is very unlikely and rare, and it takes years. You might say that it is more than the Tea Party can do -- and even if it could do this, it would not be enough.

You see, we don't have years; the crucial elections are too soon, in 2010 and 2012. If they're to have the needed influence on the course of our history, and to do so quickly enough, the Tea Partiers will have to work from within an existing major party. For now, this will have to be the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is diverted by its own, much different identity crisis; it is under attack from the left.

Even if we did have enough time for a third party to establish itself, which we don't, in the long run it's not enough for one of the parties to regain its sanity. Power tends to alternate between two major parties; we need both to be on reasonable tracks.

This is not pie in the sky. It is possible to take over an existing party and remake it as a sensible, conservative governing party. We know it's possible, because Ronald Reagan did it. It's necessary because the Tea Party, again, to the extent that it is a party at all, is more of a revolutionary party than a governing party. This distinction is as crucial as the movement's resemblance to Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry is unmistakable.

For the present I am quite content to watch the Tea Party revolutionize the Republican Party from the inside out. I do not hope for their complete success, but if they are mostly successful, and especially if they are tempered somewhat by the experience along the way, as I hope they will be, then the outcome will be very favorable for the GOP and the nation.

My long-term hope is for a similar -- to coin a word -- practicalization of the Democratic Party, too, by the Tea Party movement. This may seem odd or even fanciful, I know. But it may be possible, given that the movement is the awakening of all sorts of mostly sensible people, with various partisan affiliations -- including Democrats -- to a new involvement in our politics.

I suppose you could say that it's about hope and change. Largely thanks to the Tea Party movement, last August I began to believe that there really is hope for the necessary change.

Additional Reading

You may wish to read, for their possible relevance to this discussion, a recent essay by Orson Scott Card about how anger loses elections, and a Larry Kudlow column about the practical possibility of a revolutionary conservative nucleus in the US Senate, beginning in January 2011. Some readers will be pleased and others vexed that Kudlow mentions Mike Lee as part of that nucleus. For my part, I think Card overestimates anger's dominance in the Tea Party movement, and I don't share his sense that most people will simply accept ObamaCare, now that it is the law of the land. Otherwise, his piece is good, thoughtful reading.

Michael Carey comments (6/8/2010):

I came across your blog today while searching for perspectives on the two senate candidates, and I am quite impressed. Thanks for your insight.

I would like to ask what you mean by the "practicalization" of the Democratic Party, and what the Tea Party might have to do with it. My own views tend to be in the libertarian corner of the political spectrum (I also maintain a blog if you are interested), and I am open to a lot of ideas that are more acceptable to some Democrats than many Republicans. But I never really thought that being impractical was the greatest flaw of the party on the left.

In any case, your post got me thinking so I went and checked out the Republican and Democratic Party platforms. One quote from the Republican platform sums up the difference fairly well (at least with regard to tax policy): "We believe government should tax only to raise money for its essential functions. Today's Democratic Party views the tax code as a tool for social engineering. They use it to control our behavior, steer our choices, and change the way we live our lives."

The fact is, most Democrats think that we are not doing enough wealth redistribution in this country. I think we are doing too much. This isn't really an issue of practicality is it? It seems that a lot of countries do a lot more redistribution than we do. Even if their policies do limit growth somewhat, I would say it is more a difference in the system of values. They see the trade-off between growth (and freedom) vs. economic equality differently than I do.

Perhaps you are saying that the Democratic Party would be fine if they wanted to engage in "practical" redistribution, but that they are doing it badly? I suppose a pretty good argument could be made for that statement with regard to health care reform.

David Rodeback comments (6/12/2010):

As to the "practicalization" of the Democratic Party . . . thanks for asking. I was hoping someone would. The question probably deserves a longer answer, and maybe I'll attempt one soon in its own post. For now . . .

I'm not saying I would join such a party, but imagine a Democratic Party of which the following is true -- even if it differed with Republicans in some respects in its view of the purpose and proper limits of government.

  • Finding runaway deficit spending impractical, it reins in its ambitions, based on the practical question, "Can we afford this in the long run?"
  • Before increasing the funding of a program -- perhaps one intended to help some sector of society -- it pauses to consider very seriously whether the program is actually helping the people it was intended to help, and at what cost, and whether the same benefit (if any) could be achieved in another manner at a lower cost.
  • Before launching into its tiresome diatribes on tax breaks for the rich, it pauses to consider the actual evidence of the Kennedy and Reagan administrations, among others: Do lower taxes raise revenues? Under what conditions?
  • It wants to help the poor in matters of food, shelter, education, medical care, etc., so instead of simply creating massive and unsustainable bureaucracies and entitlements, it looks for affordable measures which actually work and are sustainable.
  • In its concern for the environment, it acknowledges provable, significant improvements in the US over the past several decades, rather than running around screaming about existential crises all the time.
  • In its concern for climate change, it weighs all the scientific evidence, resists the temptation to proclaim or impose an articial and improbable scientific consensus, and actually considers questions about the economic and human costs of its proposals. It openly and transparently weighs the benefits against the costs, rather that insisting that any benefit justifies infinite cost.
  • It acknowledges the practical necessity of cultivating our long-term and natural allies in the world, rather than offending them; realistically weighs the dangers of apologizing to and appeasing our enemies, rather than facing them firmly; and is committed to doing something the US hasn't been very good at in recent decades: standing by our friends, not abandoning them when things get difficult. (I'm thinking of the Vietnamese, the Iraqi Kurds, and others were slaughtered on a massive scale because they thought we would stand by them and our principles against tyrants -- but we turned tail and ran.)

Such a party would be good for the country.

Alison Hutt comments (6/13/2010):

Thanks for thethoughts, David.

About the two-party system. I am thinking I am a bit naive (simplistic?) in regards to politics, in that I believe strongly in voting your conscience. I am not officially aligned to any one party, though I do have many libertarian leanings and often vote in that direction. My idea is that, though I do not go along with all they purport, I figure the more of them in government, the more things will get pulled in that direction (i.e. limited government), with the other parties keeping some of the more radical inclinations in check. As to voting for candidates, many claim I am throwing away my vote by voting for a "minor" party candidate, but I stand on my voting by my conscience. I don't in particular appreciate the two-party system, how these other ideologies are rarely mentioned, and applaud times when they are held in equal representation (such as interviewing ALL candidates on a ballot with an equal amount of time). There are more than just two ways to skin a cat.

However, your comments about not wanting to see a third part (possibly the Tea Party) . . . That got me thinking that perhaps there is more to politics that just voting your conscience. There have been numerous elections (usually big ones like governor or president) where I cast my vote AGAINST the "more evil" (not in the divine sense) candidate by voting for the other party (I think always Republican), just to make sure the one candidate does not get in office. It is too important to let that vote pass by any other way. I hate those votes, because I hate feeling like I am forced to cast my vote in a way I would not otherwise. The upcoming CA governor election will be one of those, of course I have little hope that anyone has the guts to truly take on our out-of-control legislature. Perhaps the two-party system is how things work in most places, where power (through numbers) is built to make things really sway one way or another. So, maybe rather than standing on the outside, being a voice unto myself, I need to become part of the greater whole, to add my voice to help bring that party (Republican) more in the direction I adhere to; to change from inside. I am a huge Reagan fan, am grateful to have been able to live through his time, to vote for him, to even see him speak on our college campus, and hope for the day we can see his likes again. I know I am not the only one.

So, perhaps I need to step up, make my voice heard, give strength to others still in the woodwork, encouraging them to step out as well; or, more likely, find that voice that is already out there, to join and follow myself, as part of a groundswell (one would hope) to influence our government as much as possible (as it has been set up) to follow and abide by what we believe is the path of freedom.

Yeah, I'm an idealist and a dreamer.

Any thoughts, comments? Thanks for your blog.

David Rodeback comments (6/16/2010):

Alison, thinking aloud is always welcome here.

I feel the pull of the third party too, at least in theory. I have for a long time. Maybe it's hard not to, after watching both parties embarrass themselves and the country, and after too often having to hold one's nose while pulling the voting lever. California may be a special case in this respect; I don't know. But in general I am motivated to think in terms of two parties at present by two things: (1) I think there really is hope for changing both parties, reorienting them in a saner and more sustainable direction. And (2) I think the perils are large enough and immediate enough that there isn't time to build a third party to answer them; and the time, energies, insights, and enthusiasm of the Tea Partiers and many other newcomers are essential to fixing what's broken. If we lose them, because they are engaged in an ill-conceived effort to establish a fully functioning third party more quickly than one can be established, we lose most of the hope I mentioned.

Of course, this is politics, and I am human, and the possibility exists that I am absolutely wrong.

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