Tea Party Continues to Freak Out Intellectuals

By David Boaz

Peter Baker reports in TheNew York Times:

To better understand history, and his role in it, Obama invited a group of presidential scholars to dinner in May in the living quarters of the White House.* Obama was curious about, among other things, the Tea Party movement. Were there precedents for this sort of backlash against the establishment? What sparked them and how did they shape American politics? The historians recalled the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, the Populists in the 1890s and Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s.

I’m struck by the historians’ choices (or maybe President Obama’s recollection of their choices)? Who are the Tea Partiers like? The Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin’s left-wing, anti-capitalist, anti-semitic Union for Social Justice. (And the Populists, which is a more interesting comparison, being a mass movement that arose mostly spontaneously. But it was primarily a political party, which reflects the confusion that the term “Tea Party” seems to generate.) Nobody thought of, say, the antiwar movement of the 60s or the tax revolt of the 70s? Or even the counterculture and feminist movements, both of which pioneered the cultural-reform style that Jonathan Rauch finds in the Tea Party:

Raise consciousness. Change hearts, not just votes. Attack corruption in society, not just on Capitol Hill.

With a few rare exceptions like Rauch and John Judis, non-conservative intellectuals are just freaked out by a mass movement against big government. Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, E. J. Dionne, Frank Rich — they just can’t imagine that real middle-class Americans could honestly oppose President Obama’s tax-and-spend agenda and march in the streets against it — just like, you know, they did against the war and stuff. It’s got to be racism, billionaires, extreme libertarianism, extreme authoritarianism, the John Birch Society, something. And so they tell the president that the Tea Party is reminiscent of “the Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin.” Why oh why can’t we have better historians?

*It’s not clear if this dinner is different from the widely reported July 2009 dinner with historians.


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