Tea Party Anarchists?

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Caroline Hamilton, an Americanist, teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recently scholarly article was published by The Journal of American Studies in the Spring of 2010. She is writing a book about Alexander Hamilton.

Anti-government rhetoric is once again all the rage (pun intended) in the United States.   Neoconservatives, indomitable Reaganites, and the Mad Tea Party all inveigh against the federal government—its taxes, its programs, its bureaucracy, its regulations.  Unlike the political Left, they are not worried about domestic and international injustice, exorbitant military spending (the one portion of the national budget they would not reduce), or the diminution of civil liberties.  Nonetheless, given that anti-government rhetoric, it’s worth considering whether the Mad Tea Party and the libertarian Right have anything in common with anarchism itself.

The United States and Britain share a longstanding historical suspicion of the state.  “All Englishmen in the eighteenth century,” wrote Gordon Wood in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, “were known throughout the Western world for their insubordination, their stubborn unwillingness to be governed.  Any reputation the North American colonists had for their unruliness and contempt for authority came principally from their Englishness.”  English-born Tom Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense (1776) asserted that “society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.”  In The Federalist #10, urging ratification of the embattled U.S. Constitution, James Madison famously wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) argued at great length that “government was intended to suppress injustice, but its effect has been to embody and perpetuate it.”  In his first inaugural address (1801) Thomas Jefferson expressed his belief in limited government or what political theorists would later call “a minimal state.”  Elaborating on his opposition to the Mexican War and his unwillingness to pay taxes to support a pro-slavery federal government, Henry David Thoreau declared in 1848, “that government is best that governs not at all.”

Anti-government sentiment in the United States has risen and fallen in different eras.  During the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, U.S. government programs were expanded; Social Security and Medicare came into being, artists and the arts received federal support, the plight of poor American children was addressed on several fronts, and the Southern system of racial apartheid was gradually but dramatically dismantled.  It was this last intervention that roused anti-government feeling in many white Americans.  They were particularly outraged when Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy called out the National Guard to enforce racial integration of public educational institutions.

Because of President Obama, racial animosity still fuels anti-government fervor, but it is ultimately subservient to another agenda entirely.  American libertarians are far less concerned with human rights and liberties than are classical anarchists or liberals.  A few libertarians advocate the legalization of marijuana, but the majority would happily impose overt displays of Christian belief on government officials, ban birth control and abortion, and perpetrate 4th-Amendment-violating searches and seizures upon anyone any official deemed suspicious.  Thus, although contemporary anti-government rhetoric may indeed owe something to individualist anarchism, from Max Stirner and his Eigentum via Ayn Rand’s selfishness, that intellectual inheritance has a convoluted lineage.

Coined to dismiss concerns about the causal role of social environments in crime and poverty, the slogan “individual responsibility” is popular among libertarians, but it is not individuals or individual liberties that the rabid Right worries about.  It is the “rights” of businesses, large and small (but especially large) to make a substantial profit without government strictures, oversight, or intervention.  In their view, corporations should be able to pollute the air, water, and soil, sell shoddy or dangerous goods, and violate the rights of their workers.  The faith of these ideologues in the free market is as fervent, inflexible, and insusceptible of proof as John Calvin’s belief in predestination.  According to anarcho-capitalists, a restaurant that gives its customers food poisoning will just go out of business; an automobile company that installs faulty brakes will lose its customer base.  Because the market, like a mysterious Providence, eventually intervenes, neither regulation nor compensation is required.  Similarly, certain prominent anarchists declared that “anarchy is order!”—meaning that if authorities did not interfere, things would naturally  sort themselves out.

Notoriously, one U.S. free market ideologue, Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), apologized to an official from BP for the criticism it had received from the White House after the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe.  Any American who would defend a corporation named British Petrol (or Foreign Oil or whatever) against justly imposed financial penalties is obviously more committed to business than to nationality.  Clearly, this particular representative was concerned about a huge international corporation rather than all the small domestic businesses ruined by the oil spill.  The catastrophe was as much economic as it was environmental.  But since it was originally environmental—since images of oil-covered seabirds were shown on television—it did not outrage those Republicans for whom the environment is inevitably a “liberal” issue.

Members of the Mad Tea Party extol the virtues of the Constitution and sometimes flourish copies of it.  Obviously they have not read it (except for the 2nd Amendment, which they surely know by heart).  The taxation they despise appears almost immediately in the text of the Constitution as a primary power of the proposed government.  That sacred document contains no devout references to Christianity or God.  The oath of office it stipulates for the president does not include “so help me God”—an extemporaneous addition by that communion-shirking Freemason, George Washington.  The real ancestors of the Mad Tea Party—those Americans who wanted to assert the power of individual states over the federal government so that they could preserve slavery or their own positions of local power—vehemently opposed the ratification of the Constitution.

The Mad Tea Party shows its ignorance of history in other ways.  Before dumping the tea in Boston Harbor, the Sons of Liberty (who, by the way, belonged to the Harvard-educated elite of Boston) dressed up as Indians.  Their contemporary imitators dress up in kneebritches and tricorns.  The use of costumes is reminiscent of a famous passages in The 18th Brumaire:  “And just when they [the living] seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things…they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”

When the rabid Right rails against “socialism,” they refer not to government ownership of public necessities, but to any urban, state, or national policies that acknowledge that we are inextricably enmeshed in a diverse, complicated society.  They oppose funding for public schools, public libraries, and public parks, even though the first two were championed by the American founders (Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, Franklin founded the Philadelphia Public Library (http://www.ushistory.org/Franklin/philadelphia/library.htm), Hamilton proposed a national university) and public parks already existed even in the colonies (cf. Boston Commons).

However, only the leaders and spokespeople of the rabid Right appear to be wealthy.  This is, at heart, a group that defends the interests of Rupert Murdoch and BP against those of their fellow citizens.  Such a claim would elicit a ritual protest from Murdoch-owned Fox News against “class warfare.”  However, it is the rich who have been making war on the rest of us.  And they initiated this war.  We were not storming their palaces.  Their taxes have gone down, not up.  (Billionaire Warren Buffett expressed his disapproval at the injustice of Bush-era tax rates.)  But the rabid Right will not be satisfied until Americans live in a third-world country that practices some barbaric twenty-first century version of social Darwinism.

In 1788 Alexander Hamilton, the leading statist among the founders and framers, issued the following warning to the New York Legislature while urging ratification of the Constitution:

While property continues to be pretty equally divided, and a considerable share of information pervades the community, the tendency of the people’s suffrages will be to elevate merit even from obscurity.  As riches increase and accumulate in a few hands; as luxury prevails in society, virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard.

Sadly, some 222 years later, that tendency is well developed.  The Republicans are no longer republicans.  Conservatives don’t want to conserve anything, not even Civil War battlefields.  And the only liberty that contemporary libertarians care about is the liberty to make money by any means possible.

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William J. Stepp - 8/28/2010

The Tea Party, a conservative movement, arose spontaneously against Obama"care", Wall Street bailouts, and the higher taxes and regulations that were proposed as a result of these state crimes.
It's by no means an anarchist movement, although there might be a few people within its big tent who are sympathetic to anarchistic goals.
Anarchy includes anarcho-capitalism, which I would argue is the truest form of anarchy. Left-wing anarchists opposed to private property would condemn civilization to barbarism, and the poor--who have benefited greatly from its fruits--to an existence that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short indeed.

I hope the author's study of Al Hamilton--the greatest crimial in American history (he was the creator of the American state, according to The Economist, as well as the original bailout boy)--is better researched than her post on anarchism and the Tea Party.

Maarja Krusten - 8/18/2010

Hello, Dr. Hamilton. You may remember our December 2007 chat here on HNN in the comments under your article about echoes of the intolerance of the French Revolution. You may recall that we both agreed on the value of civil discourse.

Since then, I've seen more and more heated rhetoric on the Internet. I've also seen an awful lot of reliance on stereotypes and broad brush depictions. I called Tim Furnish out on that last week when he wrote about President Obama and am uneasy about some of the generalizations in your essay, as well.

Conor Friedersdorf, sitting in for Andrew Sullivan at The Daily Dish, has a very interesting series of essays about talk radio today. If you have time, take a look at one of them:
I've long wondered about whether people on message boards and social media sites, such as Facebook, posture and bluster to an extent that they wouldn't when dealing with people face to face. It's part of what makes it so difficult to judge whether people do a good job representing how they really feel or whether in some of their more extreme rhetoric, they are letting off steam or going along with the tribe. That there may be more to people than their web presence is one of the reasons gauging public opinion Internet sites can be so tricky. All the more reason not to use broad brush stereotypes, whether one is writing from the right or the lefty.

Be sure to read Fridersdorf's link at

Arnold Shcherban - 8/17/2010

I think, Mr. Bradshaw, you misinterpret the main intention and thrust of this article.
It seems to me, based on all I know 'bout theory of non-violent anarchism, that the author is much more with you, sir, on that than with the Tea Party.
She uses anarchist's terms, to criticize anarcho-capitalists, who under the pretense of "power to the people", actually struggle for imposing even more control of corporate America and religion on people, in direct opposite to the ideas of true anarchists and libertarians.

Alex L Bradshaw - 8/17/2010

This author might consider researching a subject matter prior to writing about it. The author clearly didn't even glance over the history of anarchism, mentioning Max Stirner, of all people, who is highly contested in the anarchist milieu. For the record, Stirner never actually referred to himself as an anarchist.

The author clearly doesn't understand that anarchists are every bit as opposed to capitalism as they are to governing bodies. What we anarchists oppose primarily are inhibitions to equality, which is why we oppose hierarchy in all of its forms.

Tea Party folks are capitalist apologists. Hence, they have absolutely nothing in common with anarchists. I recommend the author actually seek out some anarchists in her community; they probably wouldn't mind explaining to her what the social theory actually means.

Richard F. Mehlinger - 8/16/2010

Dr. Hamilton has done her own cause more harm than good by presenting such a hackneyed, caricatured view of the Right, conservatism, libertarianism, and the Tea Party. I am hardly a fan of the Tea Partiers or the current GOP, but there is a good deal more complexity to these movements and their arguments than Hamilton seems to realize. Imitating the worst rhetorical excesses of the Tea Partiers is not the way to defeat their arguments, in the public square or at the ballot box.

On the contrary, Hamilton does herself a disservice by misrepresenting the Tea Party's views and treating its adherents so condescendingly. Thankfully, she has at least provided a useful reminder that the Tea Party is hardly the only political movement or perspective in this country whose adherents seem to be chronically incapable of empathizing with their fellow citizens.

Nat Bates - 8/16/2010

"A few libertarians advocate the legalization of marijuana, but the majority would happily impose overt displays of Christian belief on government officials, ban birth control and abortion, and perpetrate 4th-Amendment-violating searches and seizures upon anyone any official deemed suspicious."

I am in a strange position of having to defend positions I do not agree with, including what is called "libertarianism" today, but this is an unfair characterization of libertarians. Most would legalize marajuana, have no religion imposed, and preserve the fourth amendment. Most do not favor police having broad powers. Most despise "Repti-cop" Joe Arpaio.

I have my own differences with the capitalist form of libertarianism, which I would share with this author, but confusing libertarians with conservatives is not fair. Ron Paul'ites have an alliance with the Tea Party, but it is one that is fragile and immediately would end once the Republicans gain power.

There are genuinely libertarian memes among Libetarians as they have arisen, although I agree with the author that they have misunderstood the classical individualist libertarian tradition of Thoreau. And yes, I find any defense of BP abhorent. Finally, I believe that the genuine libertarian memes among Libertarians is inconsistent with any defense of corporate rule. So, in the end, yes, the author is right, albeit a little unfair to people who should not be confused with Republicans.

Arnold Shcherban - 8/15/2010

Comments are redundant...