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Charles D. Ellison

Charles D. Ellison

Posted April 18, 2009 | 04:48 PM (EST)

It's a Bit Pre-Civil War Up in Here ...


This tea party stuff is spooky.

It's not just the tea parties, it's the symbolism behind them and the parallel track with history. The inability of organizers to explain why they've done this now as opposed to the past several years of ballooning deficit spending under the previous administration. That clearly exposes the partisan nature of it - therefore it's hard to fake the funk of this as "non-partisan" when it's driven by clear irritation over the election of a Democratic president (or that other reason over the shade of his skin). And, oh, has anyone asked another key question: do you see any people of color at these events? Not really - which presents a persistent problem: calling events that only represent one particular segment of the population "movements." Or saying "Americans" feel a certain way when it's really just a slice of demographic. That talk always makes the rest of us nervous.

Not certain if it's set in, yet. The reasons for that bit of nervousness aren't the more obvious. The anxiousness some are feeling is slightly obfuscated by the partisan lining in the conversation. The Republicans organizing, showing up and dumping tea bags all claim it isn't a Republican thing. Democrats may pick at it, but can't claim much and may be afraid that if they get too opposed to the concept, it'll backfire. So, it's a bit disingenuous and historically inaccurate to say these are "non-partisan" events grounded in a non-partisan tradition. All of this is political, making a political point and by virtue of that ... it's partisan. The original Boston Tea Party was, by all accounts, a partisan event organized by organized folks who had a desire to get heard. Do something dramatic; get King George's attention; piss him off and holla: pollute the Boston Harbor at a time when environmentalism wasn't exactly vogue. 235 years later, judging by the murky dark of Beantown's water, some probably wish their scrappy, headstrong Founders hadn't did that. But, good thing is we got a country out of it. And what a powerful, don't-frack-with-us farm this is

We can reconcile two centuries later that the tea party was a necessary thing ... to get to where we had to go as a nation. In some respects, it's probably necessary now - if all you're focused on is taxes. Agreed that the tax code is whack. How it's structured, the unfair burden on many of its citizen: from working poor squeezing dollar out of dime to comfortably rich just hoping not to turn up poor. Maybe the impact of taxes doesn't come from what we see subtracted from our paychecks. Perhaps it is the goofy shock we feel after witnessing how that money is spent, much of it dumped into the shape-shifting black fiscal hole of government. And, like tailgating sports fans dishing amateur analysis, we think we know how to spend it better. And maybe we do. From the ashes of that outrage could rise a prime lesson in good governance, a place where public officials make real effort to partner with citizens on matters of budget. Rushed and half-hearted committee hearings in empty rooms doesn't cut it; press conferences after the fact paves the road to resignation, ouster or unrest. The sincere and creative solicitation of citizen input on tax and budget policy may be painful, but it sure beats social unrest and anarchy.

There's something in the air about organized re-enactments of an event which prefaced a rather violent American Revolution. Not to mention the fact that a modern tea party is a bit of a misnomer since the first one in 1773 protested the tyranny of a monarch-based government. Why bite off that? In a sense, it's corny and unoriginal since, these days, we elect our governments. Yet, even the President feels it, the student of history that he is, explaining why he's playing Empathizer-in-Chief and calling for a tax code revamp. While knowing the tea parties are really post-election grievance sessions brought to you by the cats who lost, President Obama still understands the volatile political nature of the American anti-tax legacy.

Enough about the tea parties though, since parties come and go. What's more unsettling is the alignment of American Revolution themes with pre-Civil War sentiment and climate. It's the odd appearance of history repeating itself, or at least a failure to understand lessons of the past. Why is Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) even entertaining the thought of "what might come out of" Washington "thumbing [its] nose" at the American people while using the words "union" and "dissolving" in the same sentence? True: he didn't say "secession" outright. But, the language is used soon after the Texas House pushes a Resolution promoting "state sovereignty" under the 10th Amendment, reigniting the states' rights debate. And neither is Perry completely rejecting the thought of secession, with follow-up rhetoric suggesting a clever conservative credentials match in a caustic primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX).

We students of history see a few murky parallels emerging while some Republican politicos play to what they think their base wants to hear and conservative talk show hosts see the ching-ching of ad dollars. Some say that, perhaps, we're overreacting a bit. But are we? Raging tea parties and rants about a "socialist" President and Congress; rising gun sales, fear of encroachment on 2nd Amendment rights and mass shootings; hints at secession; talk of US/Mexico border militarization and the intensity of a drug cartel insurgency drawing in aggressive US response; the backdrop of economic destabilization and festering "Main Street" anger at "Wall Street;" the implosion of the Republican Party and new whispers of a breakaway conservative body politic. It's feeling early 19th century "up in here," as they say: from the banking recession of the late 1830s; to the US/Mexican War in the late 1840s; to Southern, Democratic charges of Northern interference in their "way of life" translated into worries over the rapid spread of industrialization triggering the obsolescence of agri-based economies; and the ingredients for political upheaval which led to the founding of the Republican Party - an offshoot of the Whig Party - in 1854. These are some of the events which led to the outbreak of Civil War in the United States.

Open protest and political disagreement are healthy signs of a healthy democracy. If the tea parties weren't all that partisan and really focused on an overhauled tax code, other folks might join in, as well. The troubling vibe, however, arises from the combination of history-deficient Americans along for the ride and dangerously fringe political elements which know history and see an opening for a certain kind of outcome. Mixed in with that is the uncertain economic climate, leading to an explosion of unemployment, poverty and the expansion of folks who are left with nothing to lose. We need to approach the times with caution and awareness or debt won't be the only thing we leave our kids with.