TEA PARTY AS AN ANTI-FEUDAL MOVEMENT: IMPORTANT, BUT WITHOUT A FUTURE
Many Tea Partiers dub their movement as the second coming of the American Revolution with their prophet as Thomas Jefferson, the champion of limited government, the enemy of aristocracy and financial moguls. While it is possible to refer to many arguments which show that the slogans of this movement are in conflict with the ideals of the American Revolution, the comparison between today’s Tea Party and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 is not complete nonsense. Indeed, there are strong similarities between the aspirations of those who founded this democracy and the activists of the contemporary Tea Party.
To be sure, the Tea Party, a deeply grass roots movement, has a strong anti-feudal (or one could say anti-oligarchic or anti-elitist) stance, while the hatred of feudalism, aristocracy, and monarchism were also deeply embedded in the ideology of the American Revolution. Certainly, American society was born as an antidote to the European Middle Ages, with its big royal governments which meticulously regulated business, heavily taxed its citizens, and conducted wars relentlessly. The first immigrants and future revolutionaries brought to these shores a hatred of the arrogant hereditary aristocracy which looked down on the ordinary people. Those who came to America wanted to create a new society with full political equality of all people whatever their educational or financial status. When the founding fathers of the republic wrote in the Constitution the distinct article which prohibited the use of feudal titles in society, they put into words the feelings of deep hostility that the first American citizens felt toward elites of all sorts.
The loathing of the feudal aristocracy and the sensation of the radical differences of America from the “old country,” generated the view that this country shunned the dark heritage of the Middle Ages. Alexis Tocqueville who visited America six decades after the American Revolution was one of the few who were at the forefront of this idea. He suggested that the vestiges of feudal order, which was so strong in Europe in the early 19th century, were completely alien to the young republic. A hundred years later, famous historian Arthur Schlesinger followed suite when he insisted that America was “uncontaminated by feudal reminiscences.”
Paradoxically, all these venerated authors who were accurate in talking about the origin of American society in the late 18th century, turned out to be wrong about the America of the 21st century. Contemporary America is a society with strong feudal elements, which the passengers of the Mayflower saw in other guises in the Europe they had left. While the feudal lords in mediaeval Europe had troops, the large corporations today have big money as a source of their power which allows them to wield control over the vast part of the wealth and labor force in the country. Likewise, contemporary magnates as feudal lords are able to influence the decision making process in government and exert influence on the political process. The political establishment in Washington, elitist universities, and media empires also amass enormous political power, and together with the corporations form the view of the Tea Party as “a self-serving oligarchy” (if to use the words of David Brooks, columnist from The New York Times). The federal government is for the Tea Party as the monarchy is for England or France, a particularly strong and therefore especially despicable feudal actor, who being in collusion with contemporary aristocracy infringes on the freedom of the people. This type of government is also inclined to profligate people’s money as did the kings during the Middle Ages. The fact that the Tea Party nurtures a contempt for the Republican Party — its closest ideological ally — only underlines the deep anti-elitist (or anti-feudal in our vernacular) mood of the movement. We also face feudal modes of governing every time we watch aristocratic tendencies in American politics, what with their American Brahmins and their political clans, with their family connections and nepotism, with the positions in government or Congress inherited by children, and with the elitist derision for the opinion of ordinary people like the members of the Tea Party. It is enough to remember how in 2008, political elites and the media seriously treated the candidacy of Caroline Kennedy for the position of senator from New York – a woman who was considered a viable candidate simply because she belongs to the Kennedy clan — even though she was absolutely not prepared to be one of the 100 highest elected officials in the country, and enjoyed no support among the residents of the state. Compare this case with the contempt of all the political elites toward Sarah Palin, who with all her evident weaknesses achieved fabulous political success in this country precisely because she was perceived as a voice of ordinary people against the establishment. The Tea Party members are not inspired by the envy of rich people, indeed, the average person of the movement is wealthier than the average American. It is a not a movement against meritocracy but against those intellectuals who share the elitist ideology and its condescension for the “small people” and their common sense.
The heated debates about the role of corporations in the election process, as well as the argument about the intermingling of CEOs from Wall Street and the American government, reflects the sensitivity of American society about the essential deviation of this feudal (or elitist) practice from the democratic model.
The Tea Party movement is the first social movement in recent American history which was inspired exactly by the fear of oligarchic tendencies in the country. Each ideology contains utopian elements which are important for the inspiration of its supporters, which is also true of the ideology of those who carried out the American Revolution. Utopian elements are extremely high in the ideology which unites Tea Party activists. With such unrealistic proposals as “the liquidation of the federal welfare state” and Social Security, along with the idea to eliminate “all the unconstitutional departments and programs like Education, Energy, HUD, HHS, and Agriculture” (as we read in one of the Tea Party manifestos), even if the Tea Party’s influence on elections in the upcoming year are significant, this movement hardly has a future.
Still, it would be erroneous to underestimate the message of this movement to American society: Beware of the real feudal and elitist danger to our democracy. The dismissive “populist” label obfuscates the fact that the Tea Party was born spontaneously as an antidote to the serious negative processes in this country. This movement, with its entire utopian advocacy, alerts us to protect the democracy from the dangerous oligarchic tendencies which were the subject of concern for the founders of the Constitution.