Steeped in Revolution

Domestic Policy, Politics, Republicans — By on May 3, 2010 at 12:00 pm

As far as governments go, America’s is unusually stable. Considering it began in revolution and underwent four years of bloody civil war less than one hundred years later, the stability is incredible.

But now, no matter how we assess its motives or methods, the Tea Party movement has brought the idea of ‘revolution’ back to the forefront of the American consciousness.

That’s not to say that the Tea Party wants a repeat of the Civil War—‘revolution’ is a term that stretches beyond physical, bloody conflict. Another way of thinking about revolution could fall in line with Poland’s Solidarity or Martin Luther King, Jr. marching Washington’s streets. But even when peaceful, revolution is upsetting—it knocks something over in order to replace it.

Successful revolution results in radical change, either in terms of a thing’s function, structure, or ideology. The ‘Tea Party Patriots’ are clear that they are after radical changes in US government.  Some Tea Party groups even tout themselves as being revolutionaries.

How should we think about the Tea Party’s push for radical change—is it warranted and, if so, on what grounds?

Their official website includes a page concerning the “mission statement and core values” of the movement. There, in the section labeled ‘Our Philosophy’, they make some big claims about the justification behind their objectives:

The Tea Party Patriots…hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.

For the most part, I don’t have a problem with the Tea Party Patriot’s objectives. Fiscal responsibility in government? Cool. Constitutional adherence? Yes. Free market? Sure.

My main concern with their ‘philosophy’ is that they ground it on loaded, emotionally-charged terms. I have no qualms about the ‘tea party patriots’ platforms. I do think things get sketchy when the ‘patriots’ justify their platforms using phrases like ‘natural law’ and ‘the rights of individuals’.

If ‘Tea Party Patriots’ rely on the ideas behind these phrases to justify their causes, they’re going to run into some sticky points.

In one sense, ‘natural law’ or ‘individual rights’ are ‘Americanese’. We’ve heard them a million times, grew up reading them in schoolbooks and have import all sorts of emotional connotations.

But those phrases aren’t abstract ‘feel-goodisms’, nor were they first used in America’s 18th century foundations: they are technical terminology that trace back to Enlightenment political philosophy.

When John Locke, a key source of Founding Fathers’ political vocabulary, writes about the role of ‘natural law’ in an intentional, governed society, he isn’t prescribing free market capitalism, nor is he proscribing socialism. Natural law in society only allows for a narrow window of ‘individual rights’:

…when he joins in a…particular politic society, and incorporates into any common-wealth…[he] gives up [the power of  doing whatever he thought necessary for self-preservation] to be regulated by laws made by the society… laws of the society in many things confine what liberty he had by the law of nature.

Under Locke’s idea of government, a nation’s laws must have “no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people,” but how the government goes about that end is up to the people and what manner of government they consent to have.

In a society, positive law should secure private property and prosperity by virtue of popular consent to the law. By consenting, individuals transfer many of their rights to the government for the sake of general security.

Still, in Locke’s political thought, even if government makes “great mistakes,” citizens don’t escape the bonds of consent. Only when government has a “long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way” is revolution justified. Revolution–even a peaceful one–is inconvenient, precarious, and costly for the citizens of a revolting society.

If the ‘tea party movement’ were going to use Locke’s terms, as implemented in the Declaration and Constitution, as a source of justification for a radical reformation of government, they need better follow-through. Populism is not enough—unless they can demonstrate both popular consent, a history of abuse, and reason to believe the situation is hopeless, Locke’s philosophy does not justify their cause.

Let’s say that ‘tea partiers’ are able to prove that American government is blatantly ignoring popular consent—which, right now, is a shaky assertion. Even so, the stability of our government through the ups and downs of the last two hundred and fifty years makes me skeptical about their chance of showing that our situation is hopeless.

So long as the discussion remains focused on voter education and government reformation, I’m all ears. But if the Tea Party decides to invite Lockean revolution in for a cuppa, I’ll have to suggest that the partiers should take some brandy and a deep breath. ‘


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  • Shawn

    I would disagree with you about the Tea Party. Based on what I see – the radical revolution is happening, and has been for some time, in halls of power – a.k.a. the govn't. The Tea Party folks, like me, are by and large, simply fed up with this forced radicalism and want to be rid of it. As for Locke, remember that he was an empiricist whose political philosophy was tremendously influenced by Samuel Rutheford's book “Lex Rex”. America was something totally new – totally foreign to virtually the entire world at that time. Countries were governed by monarchs or dictators – there was no representative republic in the world. So Locke's understanding of the world can only be taken so far in relation to the U.S.. Yes, Jefferson seemingly plagiarized him in the Declaration of Independence, but that's about it. And his understanding of revolution had nothing to do with anything peaceful. Yes, it's costly, but if we don't pay the price to get our nation back on the right track, we won't have one in a few generations. No one is calling for violence, to my knowledge, despite the leftist media's attempts to categorize the movement as such. Sorry, but I think you're a bit off base here.

  • drsteeve

    Robin,

    I'm a bit confused about your point.

    Are you saying that the Tea Partiers, by grounding their philosophy (in part) in Natural Law are making a tie to Locke specifically but that any tie to Locke is self-contradictory because Locke wouldn't approve of the Tea Partiers' revolution?

    Or is your point that, as people research the Tea Party movement, they ought be aware of the rich intellectual history behind terms like “natural law?”

    How would you respond to a Tea Partier who knew his/her Locke, disagreed with Locke's view of revolution (in favor of, perhaps, a more Burkean view) and took a Thomistic approach to natural law and its role in influencing moral understanding vis-a-vis the making of laws?

  • gradciffe

    To suggest that Locke's understanding of the world suddenly stops after the American Revolution (I include the writing/passing of the Constitution in that term for simplicity's sake) is misguided. The American experiment was a direct offshoot of hundreds of years of English political development that began when a bunch of nobles bullied King John into signing the Magna Carta. It was at that point that political power began to shift from the monarch to the common man. True, it did not happen immediately, but in any event, a chain reaction began that would lead to the free society (relatively speaking) in England that existed at the time of the American revolution. At that point, Parliament made the rules, and that legislative body looked an awful lot like the one created in America.

    Now, with strong evidence to the contrary, I might (and it's a big might) grant you that there were some significant differences between the two governments that made them fundamentally different. But therein lies the problem, Locke's principles have nothing to do with the form of government. In fact, they transcend the substance of government. We must ask ourselves if his concepts 1) apply universally, and 2) if so, did the founders use them as a basis for the American project? I could be wrong, but I don't think any reasonable person would answer “no” to either question (if I'm wrong, cite an author because I really would like to know). We can't throw out principles at the whim of the incidentals.

    I think that the point Robin is trying to make is as simple as this:

    Locke's political philosophy pervades the American experiment, both at the time of the American Revolution and today. It is not wrong to say that there may be a case for physical revolution today. Because that political philosophy is alive and accepted by free societies, the Tea Party may have a right to that revolution. But the train of abuses must be truly, and demonstrably, overwhelming for anyone to upset over two hundred years of political stability.

  • Mike Toreno

    Robin, not a bad analysis, but it misses the mark just a bit. The key to the teabaggers' complaint has nothing to do with their so-called “principles,” which are so general as to be meaningless. They can't explain why any concrete, specific action taken by the U.S. government violates their so-called “principles.”

    The teabaggers' complaint is rooted in the idea that any election they don't win is illegitimate. They see themselves as the only “real” Americans; therefore, the policies they want should be implemented, even though they represent a small minority of Americans. The fact that many more Americans oppose than support the teabagger agenda doesn't matter to them, because they don't see the Americans who oppose them as legitimate Americans entitled to vote. Thus, all the exhortations to “take our country back” (from the majority of Americans who elected public servants the teabaggers don't like.)

  • drsteeve

    Mike,

    Sounds like you've got some real insight into these crazed teabag people. Could you share with me the source of your information so that I might become wise like you to their TRUE beliefs and motivations?

  • Mike Toreno

    Dustin, it's easy. You don't listen to their self-descriptions; instead, you look at what they actually say and do. You find out about the teabaggers' real philosophy by watching the teabaggers.

  • drsteeve

    I see – so how many tea parties have you been to?

  • Mike Toreno

    Dustin, there are various devices that allow you to see things even if you're not physically present! There is this thing called television. . . In addition, you can find out things about teabaggers that are perhaps more important than what you can find out by attending the teabagger rallies. For example, the teabagger rally in Washington DC last July or September or whenever it was, when the teabaggers had a crowd of about 60,000, but inflated it to 2 million in their own minds. By observing this, you find out that the teabaggers:

    a. Can't count.

    b. Have a vastly overinflated sense of self-importance.

    You can also find out more by examining the teabagger slogan: “I want my country back” than you can by attending teabagger rallies. They want “their” country “back” (from the majority of Americans who voted for different candidates than they voted for). An examination of this slogan shows you the teabaggers' sense of entitlement and contempt for democracy, something that is not likely to be stated explicitly at teabagger rallies.

    Oh, you also learn a lot about the teabaggers from the fact that they named themselves “teabaggers”.

  • drsteeve

    When I asked you how you came to your conclusions about the Tea Partiers, you said, “you look at what they actually say and do.” I took this to mean that you came to your conclusions by looking at what the Tea Partiers ACTUALLY said and did. Because you've reached conclusions about the Tea Partiers, it seemed reasonable to conclude that you had ACTUALLY been to a Tea Party. However, when I asked you about the number of Tea Parties you attended, you failed to mention any that you had attended. Instead, you pointed me to “television” as your source.

    If you've only ever seen Tea Parties on television, then you haven't ACTUALLY seen Tea Partiers say or do anything; at best you've seen a journalistic, second hand report of actions spoken or taken by Tea Partiers – in other words, you failed to live up to your own standard of measurement. By your own standards, you're not qualified to have an informed opinion about these people.

  • Mike Toreno

    Dustin, you can actually SEE the teabaggers on the television! You can HEAR what they're saying! You can SEE their signs! And more importantly, you can use the television to see and hear them at other times than the teabagger rallies. Or are you suggesting that teabaggers quit being teabaggers when they leave their rallies?

    For example, take the teabagger rally last year that drew 60,000 people, but which was claimed to have drawn 2 million. Going to the teabagger rally would have told you that the teabaggers talk about themselves in generalized, self-congratulatory terms – for example, they claim that they are in favor of limited government and the constitution. This is not particularly important information; pretty much every American is in favor of limited government and the constitution.

    But the knowledge gained by television, as it was used to report the teabaggers' attendance claims versus the real attendance, informed us that the teabaggers:

    (1) can't count

    (2) have an inflated sense of their importance.

    Are you denying that a widely used teabagger slogan is “I want my country back”? What does that mean? They want “their” country back from whom, exactly?

    Do you deny that a widely heard complaint from teabaggers is that a tyrannical regime is being imposed, and that the source of this complaint is that government offcials, elected by majority vote, are implementing policies the teabaggers don't like? Do you deny that such a complaint bespeaks an inflated sense of entitlement and a refusal to recognize others' right to vote?

    Do deny that the term “teabaggers” is a term the teabaggers came up with themselves? I learned that from a photograph of a teabagger holding up a sign; how is my knowledge less valid than if I'd seen the actual sign?

  • drsteeve

    Mike,

    Surely you must know that when you are watching a thing on television it is not the same as seeing the thing itself. What you are watching on television is a stylized production that (at best) captures a journalists summary of a Tea Party or multiple Tea Parties. Sure you can SEE people and SEE signs and HEAR tea partiers – that is, you can SEE, SEE, and HEAR what the editors and reporters felt was valuable for their audience. But surely you don't believe that watching a report of a tea party on television is the SAME THING AS being there and assessing the merits of the party (or the people attending it), do you?

    Now let's talk about this numbers claim you keep bringing up. I'm not sure what Tea Party you are specifically referring to in which the tea partiers supposedly confused 60,000 people for 2 million, but if that is your evidence that all tea partiers everywhere 1) cannot count and 2) have an inflated sense of self-importance, then you've got a very weak argument. There have been hundreds of tea parties around the nation attended by hundreds of thousands of people. Even if I granted that one tea party got their numbers wrong, there is no way that I could accept the logical leap that it would take to convince me that all tea partiers everywhere couldn't count and had an inflated sense of self importance.

    Finally, Anderson Cooper came up with the term “Teabaggers” – the tea partiers did not coin the term for themselves. It's a filthy term and it demonstrates the profound lack of intellectual seriousness for anyone who uses it as they discuss this issue. I'm not certain about the context of that sign, perhaps the gentleman holding it up wasn't a tea partier or, if he was, perhaps he was mocking the term – if you were THERE AT THE PARTY, you would know how the man ACTUALLY felt about the term because you could've asked him.

  • Mike Toreno

    Well, Dustin, your reliance on attendance at teabagger rallies for knowledge of what teabaggers think has left you ignorant of important aspects of the teabagger philosophy. The false and ridiculous claim about attendance at the teabagger rally actually occurred, and was widely circulated, whether or not you are ignorant of it. A central belief of the teabaggers is that many more Americans share the goals of the teabaggers than actually do, and this idea was behind the wildly inflated claims of attendance at the teabagger rally.

    And of course, Anderson Cooper did not invent the term “teabagger”; the teabaggers did invent the term as a reference to themselves. You're “not certain” about the context of the sign because you don't want to believe the evidence of your own eyes. Of course, you weren't at the teabagger rally where the teabagger was photographed with the sign, so you have, by your own standards, no way to know what was going on.

    Again, what does “I want my country back,” widely heard among teabaggers, mean? “I want my country back” from whom, exactly?

  • drsteeve

    Mike,

    You are confused. You are the one who said, “You don't listen to their self-descriptions; instead, you look at what they actually say and do.” By saying this, you are the one who set-up the metric of attending the Tea Party rally as a tea party rally IS THE ONLY PLACE one can look at what they ACTUALLY say and do. Every other method of observation is, at best, second hand from somebody else's perspective. You've tried to claim that television allows you to look at what they actually say and do, but I've already proven that claim false.

    Regarding the numbers point, you don't have a strong argument. Read that line again Mike because I think you're deeply deceived here. YOU DON'T HAVE A STRONG ARGUMENT. SO FAR you can point to one tea party where they got the numbers wrong. ONE! There have been hundreds of tea parties attended by millions of people. IF you could prove some sort of SYSTEMIC miscounting of tea party numbers THEN you would have a stronger argument (though still a lame one). HOWEVER ONE TEA PARTY WHERE THE NUMBERS WERE WRONG IS STATISTICALLY IRRELEVANT.

    I don't speak for the Tea Partiers. If you want to know from whom the Tea Partier's “want their country back” you could 1) read their websites and blogs or 2) ask a tea partier.

    Seriously Mike, you sound like a crazy person when you talk about this, you really do. Here's a grass-roots movement motivating millions to protest serious issues such as high taxation and government fraud/waste and you combat them by claiming that television has show them for who they “really are” and mock them for miscounting the attendance at one rally as though counting attendance was somehow a significant part of their project. This isn't the Society of Mathematicians for Better Accuracy in Population Tabulation – counting bodies at parties is far from a central part of their project, there's no hypocrisy or nuttiness here when they get it wrong one time out of hundreds.

  • Mike Toreno

    “By saying this, you are the one who set-up the metric of attending the Tea Party rally as a tea party rally IS THE ONLY PLACE one can look at what they ACTUALLY say and do.”

    No it isn't. For one thing, teabaggers don't quit being teabaggers when they leave their teabagger rallies.

    ” don't speak for the Tea Partiers. If you want to know from whom the Tea Partier's “want their country back” you could 1) read their websites and blogs or 2) ask a tea partier.”

    So what you're saying is that teabaggers are incapable of lying? That flies in the face of your own personal experience, when you witnessed a teabagger (yourself) lying and saying that the term “teabagger” was invented by Anderson Cooper.

    The teabaggers won't tell you the truth when you ask whom they want to “take their country back” from, but the only thing they can possibly mean is that they want to “take it back” from the majority of Americans who voted against the teabagger candidates. That means they believe they should get to decide who gets elected, even though they represent a small minority. That means they believe their votes should count more than those of the majority. That means they don't believe the majority who disagree with them should have the same right to vote that they do. You can see this attitude relected when the Teabagger Queen talks about the supposed superiority of small-town Americans

    You don't learn that at teabagger rallies, you learn it by carefully observing the teabaggers and thinking through the implications of what they say and do AT ALL TIMES, not just at the teabagger rallies. At teabagger rallies, you get a bunch of meaningless, generalized platitudes that tye are protesting protest serious issues such as high taxation and government fraud/waste. That tells you nothing, but you do get worthwhile information by looking at the teabagger signs.

  • drsteeve

    Mike,

    Only the deepest cynic refuses to even consider what one says about oneself. How is a sign more legitimate than a self-description on a website? Are not both penned by the same hand?

    Conversation and debate break down when there is not even enough trust between the two parties to even hear the other party out.

    Be honest, you know nothing about the tea parties except what you've seen and heard on television. Is that true Mike?

    We can debate the history of the “teabagger term.” Yes, tea partiers said that we should “Tea Bag” the government, but they meant literally mailing tea bags to the government. Anderson Cooper took the next step calling them Teabaggers and has apologized for doing so. Regardless, the term is tasteless and should be dropped.

  • Mike Toreno

    Dustin, of course I consider what the teabaggers say about themselves. That's different from accepting it at face value. The fact that the teabaggers claim they're motivated by respect for the constitution and by patriotism, for example, gives an indication of their self-importance. The sign isn't any more or less legitimate than the self-description – both provide insight, but neither need be taken at face value. And plenty of insight is available – for example, the signs proclaiming President Obama to be a socialist. I suppose that by your standards, of just going to the teabag rallies and accepting what the teabaggers say, the signs prove that President Obama is a socialist and that's why the teabaggers protest against him. The true meaning of the sign, however, requires evaluation of the message in light of the knowledge that President Obama is not a socialist. Such an evaluation indicates that the teabaggers have a generalized dislike of President Obama and therefore describe him in terms they take to be pejorative. The use of a false claim by the teabaggers to justify their opposition indicates that they are ashamed to admit the true reasons for their opposition. The true reason, of course, given by this and other observations, is that they are a bunch of sore losers who don't believe in democracy. The incident at the Maine middle school (which involved teabaggers but which wasn't a teabagger rally) demonstrates that the teabaggers are a bunch of crybabies who can't stand the expression of viewpoints contrary to theirs.

    We could debate the origin of the term “teabagger,” but such a debate would be pointless because I'm telling the truth and you're lying. The teabaggers invented the term for themselves; it's not the fault of their opponents that some of the teabaggers are now embarrassed by the term. No, the term shouldn't be dropped, because the teabaggers don't deserve anything but mockery, they don't deserve to wrap their opposition to democracy in a term associated with the American Revolution.

  • Vox Populi

    Unfortunately – once again you miss the forrest, for the tree.

    While you are correct that the founders borrowed from Locke – they did not “lift” his thoughtS. That means he had some positive concepts but they didn’t necessarily hold with ALL he said.

    and you don’t have to have a doctorate in history to attain that – simply look at how much thought was given to codify restraint on GOVERNMENT. The collective power was to be subjugated to the individual.

    Even Thomas Jefferson, who flirted with the ideas of collective power – completely rejected it after seeing it’s abuse firsthand in the streets of Paris. In many ways – that is the problem of most on the left today. They confuse their revolutions – the French Revolution (the one they wish we’d had) is preferred to the American Revolution. The reason you reject OUR revolution is precisely BECAUSE natural law and natures God cannot be escaped.

    Our rights are our power and they only COME FROM natures God – and we lend those rights (read: power) to representatives. If we do not like the laws they write, we have the ability to overthrow that government (executively; every 4 years, and legislatively every alternating 2 years). We did not civilize our revolution – by giving the people the right to elect their representative – we codified revolution.

    We will allow liars a chance to fool us – but if they do they and their ilk will be dealt with. THAT is the foundation of the Tea Party – the left has no fixed person to focus their attack – because it is a true grass-routes rebellion and rejection of men who seek our propety, and thereby our subjugation, by offering us the “plastic beads” of too-good-to-be-true cheap healthcare, never-say-fail investments, and whycan’titbefree energy policies.

    If passing laws they were told not to pass, forcing private citizens to buy a product that eventually ONLY government will sell, and necessarily creating the scenarios that will make our energy SKYROCKET is not the start of a long train of abuses, then you do not see what could happen to you if you begin to be beholden to government for those things.

    Because my reading of history tells me that any government large enough to give you anything, is large enough to deny it, that GOVERNMENT is the enemy of the people, and that any government that takes from one for the sake of the other – makes slaves of both.

    No, you are correct, revolutions are not pleasant things – but the arrogance of neophite rulers necessarily make them so…

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Do you have some good sources on Jefferson rejecting the French Revolution and embracing the Constitution? I came away from my study of the revolutionary period in America with a completely different impression of Jefferson’s opinion of both. I’d be interested to look at your sources and learn more.