This country began with a fierce debate, and it does not appear to be over. Thefolks rallying to the tea party campaign espouse a program that goes right back to the Articles of Confederation.
Whatever we think of it, the movement is as American as apple pie. And its followers think so too, calling themselves “patriots” rather than Republicans or Democrats. Mark Skoda, the president of a Tea Party PAC, recently summed up what he calls their first principles: “less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states’ rights and national security.”
There’s an irony here, though. The tea party-ers lustily cheer at every mention of the U.S. Constitution yet their principles were most fiercely embodiednot in our current Constitution, but in the Articles of Confederation.Remember those? The same month that Congress was debating a declaration ofindependence, a committee was drafting the articles. Its purpose was to form a new government, which it called the United States of America. The states completed ratification of the articles in 1781.
Eight years later the Constitution supplanted the articles and brought to an endthe political institution that tea party members now seem intent on reviving.The articles allowed the new central government — solely a legislative body — tomake war but not to tax or regulate interstate commerce. States, nervous about losing their independence, had designed a weak government intentionally. That was why it was called a confederacy. (The Southern states, equally determined to protect states rights, created another one 80 years later.)
The first confederacy failed. Unable to tax, it struggled to raise money from the states to finance the Continental Army; after the war ended, it could not help states floundering with war debts. By 1786, it was clear to many that the confederation needed to be replaced by something stronger, a federation.
The second constitution, the one we live under now, became law in 1788. It gave the central government powers to tax and to regulate interstate commerce and created a national government that for the first time had executive and judicial branches. Many Americans, known as the Antifederalists, had their doubts about the new constitution.
Their spiritual descendants are the tea party-ers. Like the Antifederalists, the tea party folks are fiercely distrustful of the national government, especially its power to tax, even though they completely trust its power to defend the nation. They also dislike the two-party political system created in Washington's first administration. Sarah Palin recently declared her disapproval of both the Republican and Democratic parties in her speech to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and sparked an explosion of approval from her audience.
Today's defenders of the Constitution are the progressives.
Led by President Obama, they believe that the national government should not only protect the nation from attack, promote interstate commerce and protect individual rights but also solve national problems through federal legislation -- from building infrastructure to promote economic growth to making the schools better to protecting workers from unjust employment practices. It is not surprising that the tea party-ers hate President Obama. He embodies the Antifederalists' worst fears.
What is perhaps most interesting about the tea partyers is that they have no interest in the socially divisive cultural issues -- abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia -- that have so dominated our recent national political debate. That is refreshing.
Instead, these Americans have returned to the oldest argument arising from this nation's founding -- what should the role of the national government be? Should it help Americans who are struggling or should it not? Should we maintain (and even strengthen, as through health reform) the progressive apparatus of laws and programs that keep the unemployed, the poor and the elderly sick, and even all citizens, from suffering, and increase total federal tax revenues to pay for it, or should we deconstruct that apparatus and reduce those revenues? This is the debate we should be having. May it recommence!
Knight is the author of "Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy" and "Jane Addams: Spirit in Action."