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This Forgotten Chapter in History Shows How the Tea Party Will Collapse

John Moore/Getty Images

When the Tea Party movement began almost five years ago, before it gained national influence and provoked a civil war in the Republican Party, its raison de etre was public debt: its self-proclaimed role as the virtuous watchdog protesting government’s investments in failing corporations. In the speech which became the movement’s rallying cry, CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli railed that “the government is promoting bad behavior” and promised that “we’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July…we’re going to be dumping in some derivative securities.” This kind of backlash was not particularly surprising in the aftermath of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and it was certainly attuned to the mood of large sections of the country at the time.

The Tea Party’s seemingly mainstream origins are difficult to remember now, in 2013, because its members have revealed themselves to be outside the mainstream on everything from same-sex marriage to preserving Social Security for the next generation. Public debt serves the movement primarily as a rhetorical scrim, useful for striking a pose of concern for the common good to cover a radical social and economic agenda benefiting a segment of the population that’s older than 45, white, higher income, and mostly male. You cannot oppose Medicare and Medicaid cuts while calling for smaller government and expect to be taken in good faith.

Nonetheless, the politics of public debt remain key to understanding the Tea Party movement, though not in the ways the Tea Partiers think. They’re members of a generational cohort that gained unprecedented personal wealth and political influence thanks largely to government accruing debt over the last 70 years. Now they’re revolting against the kind of society that debt created. This is an ugly spectacle, but it’s not an unprecedented one. It’s a pattern that’s held steady throughout the 300-year history of public debt in Western society. Looking at how that history began, with a movement in England whose complaints were similar to the Tea Partiers and which ended up similarly marginalized, provides an instructive model to understand the Tea Party’s trajectory: How an effort which initially appeared like a populist cry in the wilderness amounted to an interest group desperately trying to keep its taxes low and its government benefits intact. It’s a story about the winners of a new political and economic order who don’t realize why they won, and their unwillingness to face the costs of their success.

Public debt first became a political issue in late seventeenth century Britain, when policymakers started borrowing money on a massive scale to fund expensive trading wars with France. For the first time, owners of capital became major players in the economy and in government. To help pay the debt back reliably, Parliament created a national bank and extended the tax system, which in turn created a class of bureaucrat administrators. This was a major shift for a society where political power had rested with prosperous merchants, farmers, and artisans, and where tax collection had been managed from the provinces by the landed nobility. These groups’ response was, predictably, inflamed. Rallied by the polemicist Henry St John, the first Viscount Bolingbroke, they became vociferous critics of the new arrangements, identifying themselves as the “Country Party,” in opposition to what they called the “Court Party” of London financiers and politicians, which seemed corrupt, unrepresentative, and in thrall to financial interests. The Country Party identified itself as nonpartisan, separate from the formal political organizations of the Tories and the Whigs, but tended to support the more conservative Tories.

Wikimedia Commons
A 1678 portrait of Henry St John by French painter Charles d'Agar.

Bolingbroke, the Country Party’s informal leader and major spokesperson, was a curious figure. An ardent monarchist who tried to overthrow Parliament and ended up in exile, he eventually returned to Britain and made a lasting political mark by relying on a different rhetorical strategy. His enemy was the same—Parliament—but now he railed against corrupt, unrepresentative political institutions on behalf of small farmers, merchants, and landholders. Bolingbroke was not necessarily dissimulating when he championed the virtues of Britain’s middling classes, but his loyalties remained with his fellow rural elites whose power was being sapped by London.

The story of these middling classes is a more poignant one: They’d existed for less than a century as a political force, since Parliament assumed an equal position to the King in running the country. Now, having just begun to think of themselves as independent freeholders with a say in their government, they felt as if they were being supplanted by Londoners bent on reducing their political clout and taxing them into poverty. Perhaps as a result, their language was intemperate to the point of paranoia: Debt holders were, according to one pamphleteer, “a set of idle drones, [of] lazy, proud, worthless pensioners and placemen” helping the government in “extending its prerogative in opposition to the interests of the people” and bringing with them a “levying of taxes…a host of tax gatherers and a long train of dependents of the [state].” Or, as Bolingbroke put it less hyperbolically: “We have now been twenty years engaged in the two most expensive wars that Europe ever saw. The whole burden of this change has laid on the landed interest this whole time.” This was the authentic voice of a citizenry that felt beleaguered and disempowered by a revolution in finance and government.

But authenticity does not mean accuracy. Bolingbroke’s followers weren’t people protesting the system from a position of virtuous nonparticipation, however much their rhetoric might have implied. Public debt had been necessary in the first place to protect Britain’s trade routes, which carried goods to and from British merchants and farmers to buyers and sellers abroad. What’s more, thanks to the national bank, debt deposited by investors could be put into circulation as capital for further investment, which helped storekeepers and farmers, as did the developed infrastructure debt allowed to be built. In other words, the Country Party was protesting against the mechanisms that had made its supporters powerful and that protected their interests. These were people who enjoyed the advantages of public debt but weren’t prepared to cope with its demands: namely more dependence on a central government to tax, regulate, and spend. They wanted to remain in that brief window of time where the benefits were apparent but the costs were not. The same could be said of the Tea Party.

What eradicated the Country Party was the impossibility of changing a system of which its members were already a part. Occasionally a particularly bad financial bust would give its arguments broader traction, but by the 1760s, it was clear that public debt was the unavoidable price of running a successful, wealthy state. Gradually the bureaucracy was professionalized and the worst forms of financial-political corruption outlawed. Where the Country Party’s ideas made a more lasting impact was in a new country that was larger, less threatened by war, and seemingly less in need of active government: the United States. Bolingbroke and the Country Party pamphleteers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were some of the more commonly read authors in America before the war of independence, and their visions of a powerful clique of elites bent on usurping power from the people fit nicely with Americans’ concerns about taxation without representation.

The Country Party’s rhetoric had a long life span in America because it seemed to resemble reality: Public debt was not used to its full effect until the Great Depression, World War II, and a 40-year ideological standoff with the Soviet Union convinced policymakers of the necessity for spending on welfare, human and material capital, and national security. But, 70 years later, public debt has transformed our society. If you are a white male over 40 who is college educated and owns a home, you have probably benefited from government-issued loans. If you own a car, you have likely used the interstates. If you work in business, you have benefited from the loose supply of credit that allows more capital for investment. If you are over 65, you are covered by Social Security and Medicare. In other words you are the beneficiary of three-quarters of a century’s investment by the federal government. The result of this prosperity is that government becomes larger and more powerful, that self-sufficiency erodes and interdependence becomes the norm, and that any efforts at reforming the system have to work within that system rather than abolish it.

The fact that the Tea Partiers fail to distinguish this is what makes their stance both incoherent and, increasingly, marginalized from the electorate at large. Certainly, they’re not the first to make this error: Bolingbroke’s followers were no more willing to confront the tradeoffs. If the parallels here show anything, it’s that recognizing the reality of the government's role in losses and gains is a difficult business—particularly in a system as complex as ours, where there’s always a scapegoat ready for rhetorical ire, and particularly if the system’s made you a winner. But that self-awareness is also the mark of political maturity, the quality that Tea Partiers most obviously lack.