Don’t Call Me That

Leading up to the legislative stalemate that caused the government shutdown, names were flying about, mostly in the direction of Republicans. Since they controlled the House and were sending bills which did not fund Obamacare to the Democratic Senate, the Democrats were frustrated; they were being given no alternative but to defund or delay the healthcare law, or let the federal government shut down. They angrily demanded the House come to their senses and send a continuing resolution without that poison pill of hindering or potentially killing the President’s favorite enacted law.

In that endeavor, they had some choice words. Senator Harry Reid said they were anarchists. Representative Pelosi called them arsonists. Some said they were catering to Tea Party ‘extremists’. Many said they were taking the American people hostage, though it seems the only hostages in the matter were our monuments and national parks. Finally, the senior White House adviser said that the president and his party, while being open to a fair debate about the issue, would not deal with people who have bombs strapped to their chests and Tom Friedman went so far as to say Republicans in their tactics are exactly like the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Politics are messy, and always have been. Name-calling and personal attacks, for all of our rhetoric about ‘keeping it clean’, are nothing new. Adams’ Federalist campaign against Jefferson claimed, if the famous author of the Declaration were elected, that wives and children would die and the country would be destroyed. So much for the innocent times of the Founders. Edward Stanton, running against Lincoln, called him the original gorilla. Hardly classy. But then Stanton became Lincoln’s secretary of war, because Americans usually get past the pettiness. Insults last only as long as the political cycle that engenders them, after which nothing permanent remains of such ugly hostility.

However, it should be apparent that equating one’s domestic political antagonists with enemies of the state, who continue to kill our fellow Americans on the battlefield, crosses a line. Unlike the similarly inappropriate but clichéd insult of Nazism, this threat is real, and linking it to those who disagree with us is disrespectful to real terrorist victims. It is also a dangerous precedent, should the affinity be repeated often enough to blur from slander into belief.

Since the Tea Party embodies much of what the established opinion makers despise (such as absolutist religion, distrust of authority, and defending gun rights), they have already and continue to be seen as “extreme”, which has now morphed into “extremism” when their representatives stand against the established system. Political strategies, like using funding bills to force the opposing party to compromise, are a healthy part of federalism and have been legitimately used by both parties before; but because this touches the issue that the intensely disliked minority cares about most, the establishment and the media that follows their narrative readily accepts the idea that this is extremism. It’s easy to paint them as crazy, so crazy that they remind us of the crazy terrorists.

This callous use of rhetoric is potentially a grave threat to the stability of a society like ours. If it becomes a norm to legitimize these attacks, we will face a culture where disagreement can be seen as treachery. Already there is a sentiment that the promoters of the second amendment are sheltering mass murderers behind their ‘rights’ to easily access weapons. Never mind the constitutional law, never mind the arguments which have maintained the second amendment through centuries of murders, and never mind the majority of normal citizens who don’t abuse that amendment; look at the dead children and wake up to the fact that the gun-party is a menace who must ‘see reason’ and give it up already.

As for those standing against abortion or homosexual marriage, their motivations are likened to minority persecution of the pre-civil rights era. That subtle hint of prejudice, like the kind so hatefully demonstrated in the last century, marginalizes any disagreement on these issues. When the Supreme Court cites an ‘animus’ in the proponents of heterosexual marriage, and when those who believe abortion is a moral evil are seen as misogynists, how can anything but the opposing view advance the American cause? How can one be allowed to hold those opinions if society deems these views as illegitimate and dangerous?

While rhetoric is appropriate for any cause, words that take such a toxic turn lose the power of persuasion and become the tyrannical instruments of overpowering the opposition. Calling legitimate governance terrorism and other citizens’ values bigotry can only lead to diminished liberty. Social stigma could eventually become political censure, so that what we label today will get targeted tomorrow; the IRS already did so against multiple conservative and religious organizations. When any group can be so persecuted, everyone is vulnerable. We must be sure to keep discourse within the legitimate spheres of free speech, lest our speech take freedom away.

Steeped in Revolution

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. ‘