Nothing New About the Tea Party

Speaking at a luncheon prior to the dedication of the MLK, Jr. monument in Washington, DC, Jessie Jackson made the statement that the Tea Party was nothing new, “It’s just a new name for an old game.”

The old game Jackson referenced is the argument for state’s rights. When historians examine the causes of the American Civil War they often cite issues involving state’s rights as a major reason for Southern succession. To my mind, state’s rights was simply a means to defend and protect the institution of slavery in the South and the social hierarchy it permitted.

If the Southern economy had not relied on labor intensive agriculture and required a steady supply of cheap labor, it’s very possible state’s rights would have never become a part of our national dialogue.

The US Constitution’s clear purpose was to form a more perfect union. It was not created to allow each state to retain a high degree of autonomy and function independent of the whole. The concept of a federal system is strength in numbers and unity, not strength in individualism. The prior failure of the Articles of Confederation had already demonstrated this.

From the onset, however, major compromises were demanded in the name of state’s rights. Those demanding compromise came from the slave states of the South. It wasn’t independent farmers of the mid-Atlantic or merchants and industrialists of the Northeast, who brought up the issue of state’s rights. It was the gentleman farmer and the plantation owner of the South whose crops depended on free labor and whose lifestyle relied on a subservient underclass to serve their desires and ease their burdens.

State’s rights became the rallying cry for maintaining the Southern status quo. Following the Civil War, it became a major argument for passing and enforcing the whole of Jim Crow laws furthering the enslavement of blacks living in Southern states. The segregation of Jim Crow perpetuated a prewar style hierarchy and continued to keep an entire race in positions of servitude.

Today’s Tea Party, with its strong anti-federal stance and insistence on state’s rights is just what Jackson claims it to be. The same old arguments, for the same old reasons, but bearing a new label. This isn’t the “New Coca Cola,” this is every bigot’s favorite flavor, “Classic Coke.”

Continuing the Coca Cola analogy, just like Coke fans rose in anger when they stood to lose the flavor they loved, the Tea Party has risen because the Federal Government and fair-minded politicians have spent over fifty-years tearing down the walls of separation and injustice while challenging the much beloved concept of, “everyone should know their place.”

They yell state’s rights again because they see themselves losing their position of being far above the bottom of the food chain. A position they have held for so long. America is rapidly becoming more diverse, more ethnically and racially mixed, increasingly less white, less Anglo-Saxon and less Protestant, and the barriers that have held back these new realities are crumbling before their eyes. They react with fear and anger and their enemy is, as always, the big bad government wanting to butt into their business.

So, instead of the Know Nothing Party of the pre-Civil War era, or the Dixiecrats of the 1940s, or George Wallace’s American Independent Party of 60s, all rallying behind the banner of state’s rights, we now have the Tea Party. They all share in common a resistance to federalism because it challenges their views regarding social issues and status, it fosters equality and justice throughout society, it embodies the concept of equality under the law and equal application of the law, it keeps alive the promises of the Constitution’s First Amendment, and it protects the individual rights of all persons while present in America, citizen or not. More simply, they don’t like having a referee enforcing the rules of the game.

Jessie Jackson, like us all, isn’t always correct. Over the years I have found myself in agreement with him as much as not. Regardless, he is not a person to be ignored just because he is black, seeks publicity, is aggressive, or expresses views that challenge our thinking. This is one of those times I find Jessie and I in agreement. There really isn’t anything new about the Tea Party. If you analyze who they are and what their true ideology focuses on, you’ll see the same old people, mouthing the same stale ideas, that have fed the fires of discontent and division for over two centuries in America.

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