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Steeped in Revolution

Posted By Robin Dembroff On May 3, 2010 @ 12:00 pm In Domestic Policy,Politics,Republicans | 18 Comments

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 [1] 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 [2]” 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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[1] Some Tea Party groups: http://www.teapartyrevolution.com/

[2] mission statement and core values: http://www.teapartypatriots.org/mission.aspx

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