There is quiet self-contradiction developing in the Tea Party movement that needs addressing, for it is a contradiction that, if left uncorrected, could turn a force with truly revolutionary potential into one more element of an oligarchic political stasis. This movement, which as a culture attempts in many ways to be an imitation of the founders, is steering away from its origins and failing to take hold of perhaps the single most important insight of the entire American Revolution – that national change is the result of local change, not its cause.
It was not homesickness that led Thomas Jefferson to return to his home state of Virginia and decline a reelection to Congress after penning the Declaration of Independence. At the forefront in Jefferson’s mind on July 5, 1776, was not the welfare of the new nation as a whole, but rather the welfare of his home state of Virginia. For Jefferson, Virginia was not simply one part of the ultimate goal of the United States, but in fact an ultimate goal in itself. It was at the local level that Jefferson knew previsions for the future freedom of his fellow Virginians had to be made.
Voltairine de Cleyre, an anarchist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, greatly admired the founding generation and Jefferson in particular. In her essay “Anarchism and American Traditions,” she wrote that one of the greatest traits of the American revolutionaries was their recognition “that the little must precede the great; that the local must be the basis of the general; that there can be a free federation only when there are free communities to federate; that the spirit of the latter is carried into the councils of the former.”
“Anarchism” today is often employed as a pejorative term rather than as a description of the political and economic philosophy taken seriously by such great minds as J.R.R. Tolkien, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Jefferson and William Lloyd Garrison. In fact, de Cleyre’s political philosophy had many similarities with modern libertarianism and traditional conservativism.
The names of such anarchists as Voltairine de Cleyre and Benjamin Tucker are not absent from our history textbooks because of these individuals’ lack of ability to make a profound impact on the world stage. Rather, they are absent because these people were not attempting to impact the artificial political realm that so often is put front and center in historical analyses. They were instead attempting to make changes for the better at the local level, and in these endeavors they often succeeded.
They, like the American revolutionaries, understood freedom as something one must endeavor to gain and maintain, not a privilege received by supporting – or opposing – a political party or pundit. This emphasis on placing local goods over national grandeur can be traced all the way back to such ancients as the Roman statesman Cato, who said, “After I’m dead, I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.”
And thus, one can now see the growing self-contradiction in the Tea Party movement, for more and more the Tea Parties focus on national issues, rather than taking into account their local communities. Speeches by Sarah Palin, Tom Tancredo, and Michele Bachmann in front of angry protestors dressed like minutemen on April 15 did absolutely nothing to restore our freedoms. Directing anger towards Barack Obama does equally little, as replacing one talking puppet with another would do little to change the state of our nation. I do not think that I would be any freer today with John McCain rather than Barack Obama as president.
I do not mean to condemn the Tea Party movement. I simply hope to remind these people, who claim to respect the founders, of what the American revolutionaries hoped future Americans would never forget: we must create freedom for ourselves at the local level before we can expect to see freedom for our nation as a whole. We must direct our resources not towards 2012 presidential and congressional campaigns, but towards mayoral and city council elections, reform of local government contracts with power and water companies, and reform of local law enforcement agencies. In short, we must have liberty-oriented local communities before we can ever hope to have a liberty-oriented national community.
While we’re at it, why not push for a permanent transfer of power to local communities via rejection of federal funds in as many areas as possible? Rather than attempting some treasonous action, this would in fact be taking our nation in the direction that our founder’s intended, the direction of local governance with political ties between communities only in those areas that were absolutely necessary. Political philosophers as far back as the ancient Greeks understood that the more autonomous a community is in its political associations, the freer its members can expect to be – the very reason that the anti-federalists used pseudonyms of Greeks and Romans who were opposed to the expansion of their respective empires.
There truly is a mountain of potential in the Tea Party movement. If I thought that the movement was just one more example of pointless political anger, then I would not anguish so much at the attempts made to hijack it by the political class. I echo the sentiments of Noam Chomsky, who recently told a Wisconsin crowd that the Tea Party movement is something to be taken seriously, and something to be reached out to by any and all who wish to see real change in our nation.
Whether history will remember the Tea Parties as a catalyst for real change or a political movement that became one more element of a system characterized by big-government stasis will hinge on whether or not this movement is able to mobilize for real change at the local level. If this begins to occur, then I truly may begin to hope for the day when we will fight to maintain, rather than obtain, the freedoms that Patrick Henry and his cohorts hoped to secure for all Americans.Published in