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Tea Party: Old Whine in New Bottles

Memo to Obama: Bill Clinton, LBJ, and FDR know how you feel.

[Editor's Note: Click here to see a related slideshow of tea party signs.]

IN A WIDELY READ essay about the tea party movement published earlier this year in the New York Review of Books, historian Mark Lilla provided a now-familiar explanation about what motivates the tea partiers. They are, he reckoned, angry about the recession; angry about health care reform; angry about President Obama; and angry about educated elites forever telling them what to do. "A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes," he said, and he described the movement this way:

It supports with worshipful intensity the Constitution of the United States; it places itself on the side of the individual and of liberty in opposition to an encroaching government bureaucracy; it respects the judgment of the founding fathers who had so wisely incorporated the separation of federal powers and the rights of the states into the great national document; it defends the American right to enjoy the sweat of one's own labor and the rewards of one's ability.

Actually, Lilla didn't write that last bit. Another historian did. This passage comes from Frederick Rudolph, writing in 1950 about the American Liberty League, a group formed in 1934 in reaction to FDR's New Deal. But it sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? All I did was change the verbs to the present tense, and it might as well have come from a portrait of the tea party written the day before yesterday.

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And that's a problem. It's a problem because too many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it's brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it's not. It's not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It's what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn.

From FDR to JFK to Clinton, something like the tea party fluoresces every time a Democrat wins the presidency.

There are, of course, differences between each of these movements. The Birchers were single-mindedly obsessed with communist infiltration, a fear that's largely gone out of style; the Arkansas Project crowd seemed motivated more by cultural issues and a burning personal hatred of the Clintons than by policy matters. And there are structural differences, too. The Liberty League and the John Birch Society were formal groups with formal leadership. The anti-Clinton brigade was chaotic and leaderless. And the tea party movement is somewhere in between: funded and inspired partly by formal organizations (FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots) and specific personalities (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck), but with a membership that, in practice, is an agglomeration of hundreds of local groups that often compete with each other and hotly insist that they take direction from no one.

But these differences are superficial. The similarities are far more telling, and the place they start is a shared preoccupation with the Constitution. The Liberty Leaguers, as Rudolph wrote, spoke of it with "worshipful intensity." The John Birch Society—which is enjoying a renaissance of sorts today—says of itself, "From its earliest days the John Birch Society has emphasized the importance of the Constitution for securing our freedom." And as Stephanie Mencimer reported in our May/June issue "One Nation Under Beck"), study groups dedicated to the Constitution have mushroomed among tea partiers. [CLICK HERE TO READ MOJO'S STORY ABOUT TEA PARTY STUDY GROUPS.]

Other shared tropes include a fear of "losing the country we grew up in," an obsession with "parasites" who are leeching off of hardworking Americans, and—even though they've always received copious assistance from business interests and political operatives—a myth that the movement is composed entirely of fed-up grassroots amateurs. Take, for example, this description of Pam Stout, the star of a seminal tea party profile written earlier this year by David Barstow of the New York Times. After Obama took office, he writes, "Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated—even manufactured—by both parties to grab power. She was happily retired, and had never been active politically. But last April, she went to her first tea party rally." Compare that to the description of Estrid Kielsmeier in Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr's history of '60s-era right-wing activism in Orange County, California. Kielsmeier, a resident of my hometown of Garden Grove (my mother acidly recalls PTA meetings at my elementary school as hotbeds of John Birch Society activism), was a homemaker who ran the local gubernatorial primary campaign headquarters of ultraconservative oilman Joe Shell against Richard Nixon in 1962: "Her baby played in a playpen next to her desk while Kielsmeier participated in what she later called her first real involvement in politics. 'Up to that was education and just kind of...networking, really.'"

Above all, though, is the recurring theme of creeping socialism and a federal government that's destroying our freedoms. In the '30s this took the form of rabid opposition to FDR's alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies. In the '60s it was John Birch Society founder Robert Welch's insistence that the threat of communism actually took second place to the "cancer of collectivism." Welch believed that overweening government had destroyed civilizations from Babylonia to 19th-century Europe, and he said his fight could be expressed in just five words: "Less government and more responsibility."

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