I attended a tea party event hosted by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann the day before the Republican National Convention in Florida last year. I observed the following: Wearing a tri-corner hat in proximity to the Caribbean makes you look like a pirate.
Which pretty much sums up the tea party crowd: historically inaccurate, attached to the Republican Party and welcomed by Michele Bachmann.
With her presidential campaign finances facing FBI scrutiny, Bachmann announced this week she will not seek re-election for a fifth term. “The law limits anyone from serving as president of the United States for more than eight years … in my opinion, well, eight years is also long enough for an individual to serve as a representative for a specific congressional district,” she said over strangely cheery music in her video addressing the decision.
Bachmann is the chair of the mostly defunct congressional Tea Party Caucus. She was one of the conservative members of Congress who gleefully hopped onto the elder-rage bandwagon in the wake of the economic meltdown coupled with the first black president in 2009.
While they chose the Boston Tea Party — a revolt against lack of representation rather than taxes — as their raison d’etre, their real lineage is the Know-Nothing movement of the mid-1800s. The Know-Nothings were the spear-tip of broader anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment. According to William Gienapp’s book, The Origins of the Republican Party, they attracted many casual, first-time voters. Apparently, “their” country was being overrun with non-Protestants from Europe. Workers felt threatened by the wave of new arrivals. Also, in the 1850s some Americans lamented the scourge of technology, namely, the railroad tearing away community values with every spike.
Their past was better, their future uncertain, their enemy obvious: Others. Suddenly the fraternal order of nativists known as the Know-Nothings sprung into power and influence.
Stephen Miller, a Know-Nothing from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, wrote in 1854 that they were the “American Reform Movement,” organized “to take from the professional politicians the government of State and cities.”
There you have it. A changing economy coupled with a presumed surge of foreign “others” and suddenly there’s a call to elect people who aren’t “Washington insiders,” to take the country back. Sound familiar? It’s an American classic!
The tea party wasn’t the first time anti-change, anti-foreigner feelings have translated into anti-partisan, anti-establishment, anti-politician demands. It probably won’t be the last. This is America and the sentiment that any influx we’re uncomfortable with means we should have another revolution will always be someone’s bright idea.
Historian Mark Voss-Hubbard wrote in his 2002 book, Beyond Party, “Although Know Nothingism institutionalized an alternative politics, it also attracted political elites who viewed the movement through the lens of personal ambition.”
This is basically the paradox of the tea party and specifically Michele Bachmann. It’s the normal conservative fear-others-based hyperbole we’re used to, re-branded as something alternative to give rise to pre-existing politicians.
The tea party and Bachmann are as inseparable as the Know-Nothings and Millard Fillmore, one of the lowest-ranked presidents in the history of the country.
Whatever happened to the Know-Nothings? They did their damage. They killed the Whig Party, disenfranchised and intimidated immigrants, and stalled the Washington Monument’s construction by stealing the “Pope Stone.” Then, after 15 years or so they were forgotten.
What will happen to Michele Bachmann and her beloved tea party? They have yet to break the Republican Party’s back although they’ve left it with a considerable limp.
Ultimately, the tea party exists in the vacuum of anxiety. It’s alive when there’s an opening or, as Bachmann put it, “There is no future option or opportunity, be it directly in the political arena or otherwise, that I won’t be giving serious consideration if it can help save and protect our great nation.”