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Party Like It's 1773?

Party Like It's 1773?

By Richard Samuelson - February 17, 2010

Are this year's "tea parties" really tea parties? What could today's protesters have in common with the "Indians" who dumped 90,000 pounds of tea in Boston harbor in 1773? Quite a bit, actually.

What do today's tea partiers want? According to the Christian Science Monitor, the movement "is about safeguarding individual liberty, cutting taxes, and ending bailouts for business while the American taxpayer gets burdened with more public debt. It is fueled by concern that the United States under Mr. Obama is becoming a European-style social democracy where individual initiative is sapped by the needs of the collective." Broadly speaking, the tea parties reflect a growing anger in America that the government seems to be a closed circle, run by an elite in both parties. These elites, combined with a class of bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists and businessmen, use government power to serve their own ends, and not the public good.

The Boston Tea party was the most famous colonial American protest, but it was by no means the only one. In late colonial America, mass street protests, parades, and other events, often led by the "Sons of liberty," were a formal ritual. Some scholars have even described them as a legal practice. In an age when government was understood to be for the people, but not of or by the people, "out of doors protest" allowed British subjects to participate in the political process, and to shape the actions of government. Government was supposed to serve the common good, and it was supposed to be under law, and yet most colonists had no vote. How could they express their opinion? They could shout, protest, and even riot.

Inevitably, some demonstrations got out of hand, and spilled over into needless violence. Such excess led supporters of the King's government to condemn all protests. They wanted to rule without being questioned by the people. After all, the elites reasoned, they were smarter, better trained, and wiser than the common folk. The patriot response to this line of reasoning was that no one, however smart, well meaning, and wise had the right to rule another without his consent.

After the American revolution, we created a government that was much closer to being of, by and for the people. A little over a century later, however, it came under assault. In the early twentieth century America's leading intellectuals concluded that our constitution was out of date. Woodrow Wilson said quite bluntly that "we are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past." The founders, he noted, "speak of the ‘checks and balances' of the Constitution." Such ideas were passe. By replacing checks and balances with a simplified administration, he would update and rationalize the American state. Wilson, we should recall, was our first and only PhD president. The social science PhD was a new invention in his day. Wilson believed that experts, armed with PhDs and law degrees, could make better choices than the common people and the politicians they elected. Armed with expertise, Progressive bureaucrats would rule effectively and fairly. Checks and balances, he thought, were no longer necessary.

Wilson, his friends, and his successors in the New Deal and other Progressives (sometimes cleverly calling themselves "liberals"), did not achieve a full revolution. Anyone witnessing the gridlock over health care in Washington realizes that. That has always frustrated them. When Thomas Friedman, the voice of the establishment, declares that "one-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages," he reflects the goal of Progressive politics since Wilson's day. He also echoes the ideas of the Tories of the 1760s and 1770s. Like the Tories, today's would-be elites claim that better training and education gives them the right to rule, although the Progressives and their children have largely dropped birth and wealth as criterion for rule.

Even if their revolution was incomplete, the Progressives did transform American government. They expanded the role of experts in government at all levels in the U.S. This permanent bureaucracy has taken over sizeable chunks of American life, and has, at the same time, removed many areas of regulation from the political process. Our representatives have been only too happy to delegate broad swaths of power to these, unelected branches of government. That way they can blame someone else when things go wrong. Meanwhile, our courts, have taken away from our elected representatives the right to legislate about various issues. The upshot: even though almost all American adults have the right to vote, their votes matter less. Perhaps that's why fewer eligible voters vote today than was the case a century ago.

Now we can see how today's tea parties resemble those of yesteryear. As more and more government operations are taken off the books, popular frustration rises. Similarly, and ironically, bureaucracies often serve the industries they regulate rather than the public good. When the government is unresponsive to the views of the people, and, beyond that, when our administrative and judicial branches restrict the scope of the people's legislative rights, protest rises. President Obama, an heir to the Progressive tradition, wants to strengthen this unaccountable, administrative state. The response has been altogether fitting.

Richard Samuelson is the 2009-2010 Garwood Visiting Fellow at Princeton University's James Madison Program, and an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.

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