Rahe: “How to think about the Tea Party”

Historian Paul Rahe offers his perspective on the Tea Party. An extended excerpt:

Over almost a century, under the influence of the Progressives and their heirs—the proponents of the New Deal, the Great Society, and Barack Obama’s New Foundation we have experienced a gradual consolidation of power in the federal government. Legislative responsibilities have been transferred to administrative agencies lodged within the executive—such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the vast array of bodies established under the recent health-care reform—and these have been delegated in an ever increasing number of spheres the authority to issue rules and regulations that have the force of law.
In the process, the state and local governments have become dependent on federal largesse, which always comes with strings attached in the form of funded or unfunded “mandates” designed to make these governments fall in line with federal policy. Civic agency, rooted as it normally is in locality, has withered as the localities have lost their leverage. The civic associations so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville have for the most part become lobbying operations with offices in Washington focused on influencing federal policy, and many of them have also become recipients of government grants and reliable instruments for the implementation of federal policy.

The Tea Party movement is, however, testimony to the fact that all is not lost. When confronted in a brazen fashion with the tyrannical impulse underpinning the administrative state, ordinary Americans from all walks of life are still capable of fighting back. It is easy enough to mock. Like all spontaneous popular movements, the Tea Party has attracted its fair share of cranks: it would have been a miracle if it had not attracted those who are obsessed with the question of Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the heavy-handed and ineffective procedures adopted by the Transportation Security Agency.
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But it should be reassuring rather than frightening to the American elite that at the dawn of the third millennium, Americans know to become nervous and watchful when a presidential candidate who has presented himself to the public as a moderate devotee of bipartisanship intent on eliminating waste in federal programs suddenly endorses “spreading the wealth around” and on the eve of his election speaks of “fundamentally transforming America.” It should be of comfort to them that a small-business owner in Nebraska believes he has reason to express public qualms when a prospective White House chief of staff, in the midst of an economic downturn, announces that the new administration is not about to “let a serious crisis go to waste” and that it intends to exploit that crisis as “an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.” And it should be a source of pride to elites that the philosophical superstructure of the United States demonstrated extraordinary durability when a significant number of their fellow citizens refused to sit silent after an administration implied the inadequacy of the founding by promoting itself as the New Foundation, and after the head of government specifically questioned the special place of the United States in the world by denying “American exceptionalism.”
Most important, it should be humbling to those elites that ordinary American citizens choose spontaneously to enter the political arena in droves, concert opposition, speak up in a forthright manner, and oust a host of entrenched office holders when they learn that a system of punitive taxation is in the offing, when they are repeatedly told what they know to be false—that, under the new health-care system that the administration is intent on establishing, benefits will be extended and costs reduced and no one will lose the coverage he already has—and when they discover that Medicare is to be gutted, that medical care is to be rationed, and that citizens who have no desire to purchase health insurance are going to be forced to do so.

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Ron Barron
Ron Barron
10 years ago

Just the fact that the author referred to those whom the government bailed out as “fellow citizens who had gotten caught short in purchasing a domicile they could not afford,” seemed to throw more than a little cold water on the analysis. To insinuate that the tax-funded bailout went to the benefit of people who were defaulting on their homes is just plain wrong. Makes you wonder what else the author was off about.

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