Entertainment | Books
|Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts|
Kate Zernike - New York Times
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October 02, 2010
The Tea Party is a thoroughly modern movement, organizing on Twitter and Facebook to become the most dynamic force of the midterm elections.
|The books Glenn Beck cites during his speaking engagements usually draw the interest and curiosity of his supporters. (Stephen Crowley/New York Times)|
But when it comes to ideology, it has reached back to dusty bookshelves for long-dormant ideas.
It has resurrected once-obscure texts by dead writers — in some cases elevating them to best-seller status — to form a kind of Tea Party canon. Recommended by Tea Party icons like Ron Paul and Glenn Beck, the texts are being quoted everywhere from protest signs to Republican Party platforms.
Pamphlets in the Tea Party bid for a Second American Revolution, the works include Frédéric Bastiat’s “The Law,” published in 1850, which proclaimed that taxing people to pay for schools or roads was government-sanctioned theft, and Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” (1944), which argued that a government that intervened in the economy would inevitably intervene in every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
The relative newcomer is “The 5000 Year Leap,” self-published in 1981 by an anti-communist crusader shunned by his fellow Mormons for his more controversial positions, including a hearty defense of the John Birch Society. It asserts that the Founding Fathers had not intended separation of church and state, and would have considered taxes to provide for the welfare of others “a sin.”
If their arguments can be out there (like getting rid of the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of senators by popular vote) or out of date (Bastiat warned that if government taxed wine and tobacco, “beggars and vagabonds will demand the right to vote”), the works have provided intellectual ballast for a segment of the electorate angry or frustrated about the economy and the growing reach of government.
They have convinced their readers that economists, the Founding Fathers, and indeed, God, are on their side when they accuse President Obama and the Democrats of being “socialists.” And they have established a counternarrative to what Tea Party supporters denounce as the “progressive” interpretation of economics and history in mainstream texts.
All told, the canon argues for a vision of the country where government’s role is to protect private property — against taxes as much as against thieves. Where religion plays a bigger role in public life. Where any public safety net is unconstitutional. And where the way back to prosperity is for markets to be left free from regulation.
As the Tea Party has exerted increasing force over American politics, the influence of the books has shown up in many ways.
Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, alluded to “The Road to Serfdom” in introducing his economic “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which many other Republicans have embraced. Ron Johnson, who entered politics through a Tea Party meeting and is now the Republican nominee for Senate in Wisconsin, asserted that the $20 billion escrow fund that the Obama administration forced BP to set up to pay damages from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill circumvented “the rule of law,” Hayek’s term for the unwritten code that prohibits the government from interfering with the pursuit of “personal ends and desires.”
Justin Amash, the 30-year-old Republican state legislator running for the House seat once held by Gerald Ford in Michigan, frequently posts links to essays by Hayek and Bastiat on his Facebook page, his chief vehicle for communicating with voters. “There is no single economist or philosopher I admire more than F. A. Hayek,” he wrote in May. “I have his portrait on the wall of my legislative office and the Justin Amash for Congress office.”
In Maine, Tea Party activists jammed the state Republican convention last spring to reject the party platform, replacing it with one that urged “a return to the principles of Austrian economics,” as espoused by Hayek, and the belief that “freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” The new platform also embraced the idea that “it is immoral to steal the property earned by one individual and give it to another who has no claim or right to its benefits” — a line ripped from Bastiat’s jeremiad against taxation and welfare.
The Tea Party canon includes other works, some of them unlikely. Organizers have promoted “Rules for Radicals,” by Saul D. Alinsky, as a primer on community organizing tactics, and “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, an argument for the strength of movements built around ideas rather than leaders.
But the ideological works tend to draw heavily on the classics of Austrian economics (Hayek, Bastiat and Ludwig von Mises) and on works arguing for a new perspective on the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. (“The 5000 Year Leap,” “The Real George Washington” and “The Real Thomas Jefferson.”)
Doug Bramley, a postal worker and Tea Party activist in Maine, picked up “The Road to Serfdom” after Mr. Beck mentioned it on air in June. (Next up for Mr. Bramley, another classic of libertarian thought: “I’ve got to read ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” he said.) He found Hayek “dense reading,” but he loved “The 5000 Year Leap.”
“You don’t read it,” Mr. Bramley said, “you study it.”
Across the country, many Tea Party groups are doing just that, often taking a chapter to discuss at each meeting.
The book was published in 1981 by W. Cleon Skousen, a former Salt Lake City police chief who had a best seller in “The Naked Communist” in the 1960s, and died in 2006 at the age of 92. “The 5000 Year Leap” hit the top of the Amazon rankings in 2009 after Mr. Beck put it on his list for the 9/12 groups, his brand of Tea Party.
It spins the Constitution in a way most legal scholars would not recognize — even those who embrace an “originalist” interpretation.
It argues that the Founding Fathers were guided by 28 “principles of liberty,” above all, a belief that government should be based on “Natural Law,” or “a code of right reason from the Creator himself.” The founders, Skousen wrote, believed in the equal protection of rights, but not the equal distribution of things — an argument that many Tea Party activists now make against the health care overhaul passed in March.
“One of the worst sins of government, according to the Founders, was the exercise of coercive taxing powers to take property from one group and give it to another,” he wrote.
“Leap” argues that when Jefferson spoke of a “wall of separation between church and state,” he was referring only to the federal government, and was in fact “anxious” for the state governments to promote religion. In Skousen’s interpretation, public schools should be used for religious study, and should encourage Bible reading.
It is from this book that many Tea Party supporters and candidates have argued for repeal of the 17th Amendment. Prior to the amendment, state legislators elected United States senators. “Since that time,” Skousen wrote, “there has been no veto power which the states could exercise against the Congress in those cases where a federal statute was deemed in violation of states’ rights.”
Neither Hayek nor Bastiat were writing with the United States in mind. But their arguments, too, have become fodder for a movement that believes that government intervention is the wrong solution to the country’s economic woes — and is, in fact, the problem, resulting in runaway national debt.
Hayek, who won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 1974, argued that when a government begins any kind of central economic planning, it must decide which needs are more and less important, and therefore ends up controlling every aspect of its citizens lives.
Bastiat called taxation “legal plunder,” allowing the government to take something from one person and use it for the benefit of someone else, “doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” In his view, protective tariffs, subsidies, progressive taxation, public schools, a minimum wage, and public assistance programs were of a piece. “All of these plans as a whole,” he wrote, “constitute socialism.”
The works are more suited to protest than to policy making, as Bastiat himself recognized. “If you wish to be strong, begin by rooting out every particle of socialism that may have crept into your legislation,” he urged. “This will be no light task.”