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January 1, 2017

We Tore It Apart—We Can Rebuild It

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How will history remember the Tea Party movement of 2009 to 2016? The answer to that question depends on what we do next.

The Tea Party movement was an antagonistic movement. We opposed bad stuff. We sought punishment for bad actors. We saw that the experts were wrong, and we pointed out their folly. Like William F. Buckley’s charter for National Review, we stood athwart history, yelling “STOP!” At its heart, the Tea Party movement opposed a corrupt and insulated establishment class.

With Donald Trump’s election, history yielded to our call. Now what?

From the Tea Party’s earliest days, we have struggled with this moment of antagonistic victory. I remember Lee Presser asking me at lunch one day in 2009, “to what end?” He encouraged me to paint a sensory vision of what life would be like should the Tea Party prevail.

That’s a bigger challenge than it might seem, at least for me it was. And still is.

I tried. But my efforts at developing a vision were often interrupted by the need for more antagonistic response to events. Despite these distractions, a few of us managed to try on a new, protagonist role. We launched a BUYcott in Ferguson following the first riots. We promoted municipal court reform. Some of us backed Eric Greitens for governor.

Above these concrete acts stood an abstract idea that you can see if you look hard enough: being against bad stuff is important, but it doesn’t make things better. To make life better for real people, we tried to apply principles from the right to problems the right mostly ignores. We began looking for ways to help those people who so need help, those who get too much of the wrong kind of help from the political party they support.

In 2015, this blog wrote quite a bit about Arthur C. Brooks’s book The Conservative Heart.

What inspired these posts was seeing the Tea Party heading toward success, which also meant the Tea Party was heading for the history books, like the Mothers’ March of Dimes Against Polio. Once polio was eradicated, the March of Dimes needed a new mission. The Mothers’ March of Dimes took on birth defects. What would be our new mission?

We’ve torn apart the establishment. Okay, maybe we’ve only weakened it. But it’s time now to become the protagonists of our story. It’s time to rise up from opposition. It’s our duty to rebuild the order we helped destroy.

I realize that working for something good is less gratifying to many people than fighting against something bad. Some will ignore our new mission and continue to fight the bad stuff. They might even fight us, just as a few Tea Partiers fought against Trump and Greitens and against those who supported them.

That’s okay. But some of us are builders. We want to leave concrete gifts to the future, not just burned-out buildings. We can look to Samuel Adams for guidance.Via Wikipedia:

While Adams tried to reassert control of the meeting, people poured out of the Old South Meeting House and headed to Boston Harbor. That evening, a group of 30 to 130 men boarded the three vessels, some of them thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, and dumped all 342 chests of tea into the water over the course of three hours.[143] Adams never revealed whether he went to the wharf to witness the destruction of the tea.[144] Whether or not he helped plan the event is unknown, but Adams immediately worked to publicize and defend it.[145] He argued that the Tea Party was not the act of a lawless mob, but was instead a principled protest and the only remaining option that the people had to defend their constitutional rights.[146]

So what did Adams do after the Revolution?

Adams focused his political agenda on promoting virtue, which he considered essential in a republican government. If republican leaders lacked virtue, he believed, liberty was endangered. His major opponent in this campaign was his former protégé John Hancock; the two men had a falling out in the Continental Congress. Adams disapproved of what he viewed as Hancock’s vanity and extravagance, which Adams believed were inappropriate in a republican leader. 

Adams’s promotion of public virtue took several forms. He played a major role in getting Boston to provide a free public education for children, even for girls, which was controversial.[184]Adams was one of the charter members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780.[185] After the Revolutionary War, Adams joined others, including Thomas Jefferson, in denouncing the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former army officers. Adams worried that the Society was “a stride towards an hereditary military nobility”, and thus a threat to republicanism.[186]

While Adams continued to opposed bad things, he focused on promoting good things: frugality, virtue, and republicanism. After initial opposition to the new Constitution, he supported the document in the Massachusetts ratification convention. Once the Bill of Rights was added, he became a strong proponent of the new federal government.

And his view of armed rebellion changed, too. According to Wikipedia:

Postwar economic troubles in western Massachusetts led to an uprising known as Shays’s Rebellion, which began in 1786. Small farmers, angered by high taxes and debts, armed themselves and shut down debtor courts in two counties. Governor James Bowdoin sent four thousand militiamen to put down the uprising, an action supported by Adams.[190]His old political ally James Warren thought that Adams had forsaken his principles, but Adams saw no contradiction. He approved of rebellion against an unrepresentative government, as had happened during the American Revolution, but he opposed taking up arms against a republican government, where problems should be remedied through elections. He thought that the leaders of Shays’s Rebellion should be hanged, reportedly saying that “the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death”.[191]

Samuel Adams was a worthy role model for our days of rebellion during the Tea Party era. His post-Revolutionary example serves us well as we move to rebuilding faith in American institutions. No one owns the Tea Party, so you are free to continue dumping tea into Boston Harbor. I am moving on toward making America great again.

More to come. Stay tuned.