In a recent dust-up between David Brooks and Jonah Goldberg, the two went the rounds over the true character of the Tea Party movement. Brooks took the position that the movement represented a radical break with the existing system, in much the same way that the student led New Left of the 1960's demanded radical social justice based on the existing system's inequality. Goldberg comes back at Brooks to make the point that what distinguishes the Tea Partiers is that the "New Left had no interest in restoring America's founding vision."
The clash, then, is between interpreting the Tea Partier's relationship to American history--Goldberg seems intent on reading for a continuity, seeing the parties emrgencies as a natural reaction to a Leftist political agenda that has taken the country away from its founding principles, while Brooks wants to interpret the group as sharing with the New Left a radical distance from on-going politics. Indeed, I hope I am not stretching to say that Brooks attempts to pull off an argument that would make Foucault proud--he points to the Rousseauian optimism at the heart of both the New Left and the Tea Parties in his view. Of course, this optimism generates different policy suggestions--the New Left wants an increased governmental role in the social so that forms of equality might be produced that let this basic human goodness flourish, while the Tea Party view wants the government out of markets especially, holding that a world unencumbered by heavy governmental regulation will produce the greatest good for the greatest number, owing to the way that market forces testify to man being "born free".
Why does this matter? Well, few political movements (and even fewer successful ones) publicly mark themselves as being against the words and principles upon which their public is founded. Witness, for example, Obama's attempt to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright's rhetoric of "God damn America!" It is bad politics to set yourself up as being against the political structures you inhabit. The Tea Partiers certainly do not do anything like this in their rhetoric, which is peppered with words like freedom, the Constitution, liberty, and of course the signifier "Tea Party" which we tend to imagine is articulated to what America stands for. However, it is a messy business to disentangle this "Tea Party" signifier from its association with revolution and violence. This is why, while I largely think Goldberg's analysis is more persuasive than Brooks's, I find myself recalcitrant in the face of the former's suggestion that the Tea Party movement proposes no break with the American tradition. After all, the Tea Party most commonly might signal for one of two things: the slogan "no taxation without representation", or the beginning of a revolution. Certainly the Tea Partiers consistently claim that they are not represented in Washington but this lack of representation is of a different character than that experienced by the colonists--it is temporary, democratically authorized, and legitimate, even if it is not experienced as such.
It requires some interpretive charity to believe that the "Tea Party" as a signifier floats around with absolutely no affective or signifying force linked to its associations with revolution have an effect on the subjects within the movement. In 1988, Gustainis and Hahns pointed to what they called a "negative reference group" problem, which posed issues for 60's era war protestors. The risk was that the more moderate elements of the group risked being linked in the public imaginary with the worst and more excessive elements of the anti-war movement, delegitimating the entire group effort. The Tea Partiers are conscious of this problem as well--a recent New Yorker article depicts participants at a rally kicking out people for bringing racist signs and being on the lookout for radicals who would promote a negative image. I am quite sincere when I say that a major motive for kicking these people out is also the participants taking offense at offensive messaging--I do believe that the Tea Partiers as a whole are well intentioned individuals (for more on this point see Jonathan Raban's piece in the New York Times Review of Books from a few months back).
Nevertheless, I cannot shake the suspicion that the historical event of the "Boston Tea Party" hints at a threat of violence. After all, we could settle on any number of different signs around which to organize our anger with the government--conservative PAC "Freedom Works" gathers constituents around the less revolutionary and depoliticized "freedom", "Americans for Prosperity" gathers folks around with a message of optimism in the market, and "The Next Right" is another conservative PAC that could produce a new political movement that insists on its continuity with the past. No, there is something in the notion of a Tea Party that makes it a vibrant rhetorical site around which to constitute a movement. It ineffably signifies not only dissatisfaction with a contemporary state of affairs, but also a willingness to promote action to change that state of affairs.
All well and good, you might say, but are not political protests a legitimate way to promote action through legitimate political channels to contest the status quo? Quite right. And we've seen a number of conservative movements that protested publicly over certain issues (abortion and gay right, for example). Those groups often united themselves with a rhetoric of defending "their way of life" or "defending their country and values" against a force externally constituted. And indeed the Tea Partiers continue this tradition, demanding often that they "take their country back." Besides some isolated incidents, however (Eric Rudolph and the Eightmaps controversy over Proposition 8 in California come to mind because of the work of my colleague Sarah Spring) these movements mostly appeared in public as movements defending a certain already American status quo (Lauren Berlant elegantly details this in her collection of essays The Queen of America Goes to Washington City). Because social space was already configured with a presumption or hegemony in favor of the conservative arguments, there was little need to associate the movement with revolutionary imagery (and the privilege of being an unmarked public plays into this as well). So for me, the move to the Tea Party as a signifier of conservative discontent represents not just continuity with America's past, but also a tacit acknowledgment that when things get bad, resistance and recalcitrance are legitimate. Why else move to this imagery that secures the legitimacy of revolutionary violence in a polity that spent much of the 20th century using rhetorical strategies to delegitimze violent resistance and depoliticize political space itself? Words like "freedom" and "liberty" do not quite do enough work right now for conservatives, because while everyone is for them, they are fundamentally hegemonic terms whose possible rearticulation is made concretely threatening to conservative privilege through the electoral victory of Barack Obama. Subjects need a vocabulary to disagree not just with the content of the President's policies but also a means of symbolic compensation to assert that no matter how much the government does not represent their views, they will always have some kind of voice, even if it is a violent one.