Recently, it occurred to me that there might be parallels between the French Revolution and what is going on today in American politics, particularly when it comes to the political phenomenon dubbed ‘The Tea Party Movement’. After all, the French Revolution was and the Tea Party Movement is, on the face of it, motivated by a financial crisis, government corruption and overspending, and a perceived lack of political representation.
However, as I looked for analogous events there seemed to be no congruities. For instance, nothing the Tea Party has done is analogous to the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Come to think of it, nothing the modern Tea Party Movement has done even compares to the millions of dollars in property damage done by early American ‘Tea Party’ revolutionaries.
When I think back to the early events of the American Revolution I am reminded of the refusal to pay taxes, burning the homes of tax collectors, the tarring and feathering of government officials, etc. With the exception of a possible spitting incident on the U.S. Capitol or some shattered pane glass I cannot think of a single incident of violence. Well, of course, there was that guy who punched that woman last week at a Sharron Angle event—but didn’t she egg him on?
As I sat and pondered this—because historians like to believe there is always a historical analogy—it hit me. The Tea Party is not a revolutionary movement it is a counter-revolutionary movement. It is more akin to the counter-revolution that produced the U.S. Constitution and the French Directory, both meant to address the perceived excesses of liberalism—defined in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as the freedom of the individual.
Both the Constitutional Convention and the establishment of the French Directory were responses to what people felt was a lack of centralized power, a lack of centralized power that had created an anarchic environment in which nothing could get done, an economy that was in shambles, and a state imperiled by the forces around it. It is no coincidence that after the Constitution was ratified Congress had to enforce its will by military force against the so-called “Whiskey Rebellion.” The French Directory did the same, using Napoleon Bonaparte to repress opposition to its limiting of French suffrage and the establishment of a government clearly created to favor those of property.
The Tea Party represents a segment of American society that believes we have gone too far toward liberalism, which is problematic to define since the Tea Party Movement appears to have an amorphous agenda. This is common to an opposition movement since the opposed rarely think about building something else to replace what they are destroying, in this case the liberal democratic state.
The good news is that the movement is so small and ineffectual that most of us will probably not remember it twenty years from now. Most of these people will be reabsorbed back into the Republican Party from which they hail. How many remember Ross Perot and his ‘Reform Party’? How many remember the Grangers, the Populists, or the Silverites? We don’t remember them because they were all co-opted by one of the two parties which have alternately controlled the United States for over a century.
That leads me to my next observation, which is that a true ‘revolutionary’ party would be one that challenged the duopoly of the Republican and Democrat Parties. A real revolutionary party would have specific goals that it wanted to achieve, not just the desire to turn back history or gum up the works of the political process. Therefore, the Tea Party is not a revolutionary party. It is a reactionary response to the threat of a growing non-white, non-Christian society. They are driven by an overwhelming fear of the future, exacerbated by a severe downturn in national economic growth and personal mobility.
The Tea Party does not really want to change things as much as they want to be heard. Their hope is that their true representatives—the Republican Party—will answer the call to not only stop the creep of modern liberal society into every nook and cranny of American life but to reverse it. However, they will be sadly disappointed when after the election in November things do, in fact, return to ‘business as usual’. For, that is the American way of politics as long as the electorate continues to believe there are only two choices, Democrat or Republican.