Bullhorn: Tea and No Sympathy

I love a good tea party as much as the next girl. And I have far more respect for misguided citizen activists than I do for disengaged citizen do-nothings. I find the Tea Party, however passionately engaged, to be dangerously misinformed, misguided and misled.


The real Tea Party was about tea; and yes, it was also about taxes.  But more specifically, the original affair in 1773 was an action by colonists against the British government, after officials refused to return shiploads of taxed tea to Britain. They stormed the ships, destroyed the tea, dumping a whole lot of it overboard, into the Boston Harbor.  Thus the “Boston Tea Party.”

Which brings us to one of the biggest misconceptions in America today: We did not start the American Revolution to stop paying taxes.  We fought the Revolution to stop paying taxes without representation. 

Someone needs to explain this to the modern day Tea Party people. They seem to have missed Boston Tea Party day in history class.


Glenn Beck, their self-appointed Pied Piper of Populism, rails against the federal government for using the federal tax code as a “political weapon” against its citizens. This is simply incendiary language designed to construct an “Us against Them” narrative where none exists. 

True, the tax code is burdensome. Perhaps we need some tax reform. Rather than a weapon, however, taxes are a tool of government, designed to provide for the greater good: highways, bridges, tunnels, schools, and the list goes on.

But the Tea Party, and the candidates they endorse, do not like government. By extension, they don’t like taxes. The great irony being that, while they say they don’t like government, they darn sure want to be a part of it.

In February 2010, the Tea Party held it’s Inaugural National Convention in Nashville, declaring that it would turn its anger into real political power, campaign infrastructure and cash. 

Organizers formed a PAC offshoot of an incorporated 501c4 called Ensuring Liberty. Its goal was to raise millions to spend in the 2010 Congressional elections. They identified races for Tea Party-backed challenges and the Ensuring Liberty PAC chose "Tea Party approved" candidates based on fidelity to what it calls the First Principles: less government, fiscal responsibility, no new taxes, states rights, and national security.

So, while most Americans think of the Tea Party folks as a bunch or right-wing fundamentalists marching on Washington and holding up picket signs, we need to think again. 

The Tea Party is focused. It is organized. It is a force to be reckoned with. Tea Party organizers realized long ago that there is a place for Restoring Honor Rallies. But it is simply not enough to get real political power. That takes getting people elected. 

So far their strategy is working. The question is whether success in the primaries will translate into victory over Democrats in November, when the full electorate is voting. Most analysts are betting against the Tea Party. But history counsels against counting them out.

Theirs is a movement with deep roots in our American political past. Tea Party loyalists are inspired by the same profound mistrust of Washington that motivated the original anti-federalists like Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams.

The Tea Party continues a fundamental debate that has never been fully resolved in this country. Tea Partiers are the modern-day Anti-Federalists. Their predecessors are those who opposed the Constitution itself as concentrating too much power in the federal government. Let me repeat, opposed the Constitution itself.

Which gets us to Misguided. 


I’ve had some good debates with Tea Party Nation folks. Their passion is great. Their point of view is pure. Yet, from my point of view, they fail to see the danger of their rhetoric or the consequences of following their political philosophy to its logical conclusion.  

For them, the facts do not matter, so great is their suspicion of government. They cannot be persuaded -- not because they are irrational, but because the facts are beside the point. For Tea Party folks, opposing federalism is a matter of principle. They are principled, to a fault. 

This is essentially the same brand of people who chose to fight against the Union during the Civil War, even when it was clear they could not win. 

In the modern context, if they were asked whether an economic collapse would have been better than passing a stimulus and bailing out the banks, the anti-federalists would have said "yes.”

Understanding the historical underpinnings of anti-government radicalism that enlivens the Tea Party movement actually foreshadows the future. In the long run, Tea Party stalwarts are destined to be disappointed by the Grand Old Party of Nixon, Bush 41 and 43 and even Reagan. They are still tied to Republican apron strings, but not for long. 

We are headed to a new chapter in American history, one that may see the official formation of a third party, a party ironically ill-informed about its own place in that history, yet poised to play an important role in writing its next chapter.

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio.  She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.