During the night of December 16, 1773, somewhere between 30 and 130 men, a few disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three merchant ships in Boston Harbor and destroyed 342 chests of tea to protest duties imposed by the British parliament. Samuel Adams was widely considered to be the ringleader of the demonstration. The historical record is ambiguous; he disclaimed all responsibility while doing everything possible to publicize the event. The next year, a more decorous tea party occurred in Edenton, North Carolina, when Mrs. Penelope Barker convened 51 women to support the colony's resistance to British taxation. Tea was neither destroyed nor consumed, but something even more momentous happened that day: Barker's gathering is believed to have been the first women's political meeting in British North America.
Both tea parties stirred British opinion. Although prominent Whigs, such as John Wilkes and Edmund Burke, supported the Americans against King George III and his handpicked government, the lawlessness of Boston and the unheard-of political activism of the women of Edenton seemed proof to many in the mother country that the colonials were violent and barbaric. The idea of a women's political meeting was shocking enough to merit coverage in the London press, where the resolutions taken by the Edenton activists were reprinted in full. The British writer Samuel Johnson published a pamphlet denouncing the colonials' tea parties and their arguments against imperial taxation, writing, "These antipatriotic prejudices are the abortions of folly impregnated by faction."
Today, tea parties have returned, and Johnson's objections still resonate. The modern Tea Party movement began in February 2009 as an on-air rant by a CNBC financial reporter who, from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, called for a Chicago tea party to protest the taxpayer-financed bailout of mortgage defaulters. Objecting to what they saw as the undue growth of government spending and government power under President Barack Obama, Republicans and like-minded independents (backed by wealthy sympathizers) soon built a network of organizations across the United States. Energized to some degree by persistently favorable coverage on Fox News (and perhaps equally energized by less sympathetic treatment in what the Tea Party heroine Sarah Palin has dubbed "the lamestream media"), Tea Party activists rapidly shook up American politics and contributed to the wave of anti-big-government sentiment that made the 2010 elections a significant Democratic defeat.
The rise of the Tea Party movement has been the most controversial and dramatic development in U.S. politics in many years. Supporters have hailed it as a return to core American values; opponents have seen it as a racist, reactionary, and ultimately futile protest against the emerging reality of a multicultural, multiracial United States and a new era of government activism.
To some degree, this controversy is impossible to resolve. The Tea Party movement is an amorphous collection of individuals and groups that range from center right to the far fringes of American political life. It lacks a central hierarchy that can direct the movement or even declare who belongs to it and who does not. As the Tea Party label became better known, all kinds of people sought to hitch their wagons to this rising star. Affluent suburban libertarians, rural fundamentalists, ambitious pundits, unreconstructed racists, and fiscally conservative housewives all can and do claim to be Tea Party supporters.
The Fox News host Glenn Beck may be the most visible spokesperson for the Tea Party, but his religious views (extremely strong and very Mormon) hardly typify the movement, in which libertarians are often more active than social conservatives and Ayn Rand is a more influential prophet than Brigham Young. There is little evidence that the reading lists and history lessons that Beck offers on his nightly program appeal to more than a small percentage of the movement's supporters. (In a March 2010 public opinion poll, 37 percent of respondents expressed support for the Tea Party, suggesting that about 115 million Americans sympathize at least partly with the movement; Beck's audience on Fox averages 2.6 million.)
Other prominent political figures associated with the Tea Party also send a contradictory mix of messages. The Texas congressman Ron Paul and his (somewhat less doctrinaire) son, the newly elected Kentucky senator Rand Paul, come close to resurrecting isolationism. The conservative commentator Pat Buchanan echoes criticisms of the U.S.-Israeli alliance made by such scholars as John Mearsheimer. Palin, on the other hand, is a full-throated supporter of the "war on terror" and, as governor of Alaska, kept an Israeli flag in her office.
If the movement resists easy definition, its impact on the November 2010 midterm elections is also hard to state with precision. On the one hand, the excitement that Tea Party figures such as Palin brought to the Republican campaign clearly helped the party attract candidates, raise money, and get voters to the polls in an off-year election. The GOP victory in the House of Representatives, the largest gain by either major party since 1938, would likely have been much less dramatic without the energy generated by the Tea Party. On the other hand, public doubts about some Tea Party candidates, such as Delaware's Christine O'Donnell, who felt it necessary to buy advertising time to tell voters, "I am not a witch," probably cost Republicans between two and four seats in the Senate, ending any chance for a GOP takeover of that chamber.
In Alaska, Palin and the Tea Party leaders endorsed the senatorial candidate Joe Miller, who defeated the incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. Miller went on to lose the general election, however, after Murkowski organized the first successful write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate since Strom Thurmond was elected from South Carolina in 1954. If libertarian Alaska rejects a Palin-endorsed Tea Party candidate, then there are reasons to doubt the movement's long-term ability to dominate politics across the rest of the country.
But with all its ambiguities and its uneven political record, the Tea Party movement has clearly struck a nerve in American politics, and students of American foreign policy need to think through the consequences of this populist and nationalist political insurgency. That is particularly true because the U.S. constitutional system allows minorities to block appointments and important legislation through filibusters and block the ratification of treaties with only one-third of the Senate. For a movement of "No!" like the Tea Party, those are powerful legislative tools. As is so often the case in the United States, to understand the present and future of American politics, one must begin by coming to grips with the past. The Tea Party movement taps deep roots in U.S. history, and past episodes of populist rebellion can help one think intelligently about the trajectory of the movement today.
A NEW AGE OF JACKSON?
The historian Jill Lepore's book The Whites of Their Eyes makes the point that many Tea Party activists have a crude understanding of the politics of the American Revolution. Yet however unsophisticated the Tea Party's reading of the past may be, the movement's appeal to Colonial history makes sense. From Colonial times, resentment of the well-bred, the well-connected, and the well-paid has merged with suspicion about the motives and methods of government insiders to produce populist rebellions against the established political order. This form of American populism is often called "Jacksonianism" after Andrew Jackson, the president who tapped this populist energy in the 1830s to remake the United States' party system and introduce mass electoral politics into the country for good.
Antiestablishment populism has been responsible for some of the brightest, as well as some of the darkest, moments in U.S. history. The populists who rallied to Jackson established universal white male suffrage in the United States -- and saddled the country with a crash-prone financial system for 80 years by destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Later generations of populists would rein in monopolistic corporations and legislate basic protections for workers while opposing federal protection of minorities threatened with lynching. The demand of Jacksonian America for cheap or, better, free land in the nineteenth century led to the Homestead Act, which allowed millions of immigrants and urban workers to start family farms. It also led to the systematic and sometimes genocidal removal of Native Americans from their traditional hunting grounds and a massively subsidized "farm bubble" that helped bring about the Great Depression. Populist hunger for land in the twentieth century paved the way for an era of federally subsidized home mortgages and the devastating burst of the housing bubble.
Jacksonian populism does not always have a clear-cut program. In the nineteenth century, the Jacksonians combined a strong aversion to government debt with demands that the government's most valuable asset (title to the vast public lands of the West) be transferred to homesteaders at no cost. Today's Jacksonians want the budget balanced -- but are much less enthusiastic about cutting middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Intellectually, Jacksonian ideas are rooted in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy -- that moral, scientific, political, and religious truths can be ascertained by the average person -- is more than an intellectual conviction in the United States; it is a cultural force. Jacksonians regard supposed experts with suspicion, believing that the credentialed and the connected are trying to advance their own class agenda. These political, economic, scientific, or cultural elites often want to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America. That federal deficits produce economic growth and that free trade with low-wage countries raises Americans' living standards are the kind of propositions that clash with the common sense of many Americans. In the not too distant past, so did the assertion that people of different races deserved equal treatment before the law.
Sometimes those elites are right, and sometimes they are wrong, but their ability to win voter approval for policies that seem counterintuitive is a critical factor in the American political system. In times like the present, when a surge of populist political energy coincides with a significant loss of popular confidence in establishment institutions -- ranging from the mainstream media and the foreign policy and intellectual establishments to the financial and corporate leadership and the government itself -- Jacksonian sentiment diminishes the ability of elite institutions and their members to shape national debates and policy. The rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change is one of many examples of populist revolt against expert consensus in the United States today.
The Tea Party movement is best understood as a contemporary revolt of Jacksonian common sense against elites perceived as both misguided and corrupt. And although the movement itself may splinter and even disappear, the populist energy that powers it will not go away soon. Jacksonianism is always an important force in American politics; at times of social and economic stress and change, like the present, its importance tends to grow. Even though it is by no means likely that the new Jacksonians will gain full control of the government anytime soon (or perhaps ever), the influence of the populist revolt against mainstream politics has become so significant that students of U.S. foreign policy must consider its consequences.
THE POPULISTS' COLD WAR
In foreign policy, Jacksonians embrace a set of strongly nationalist ideas. They combine a firm belief in American exceptionalism and an American world mission with deep skepticism about the United States' ability to create a liberal world order. They draw a sharp contrast between the Lockean political order that prevails at home with what they see as a Hobbesian international system: in a competitive world, each sovereign state must place its own interests first. They intuitively accept a Westphalian view of international relations: what states do domestically may earn one's contempt, but a country should only react when states violate their international obligations or attack it. When the United States is attacked, they believe in total war leading to the unconditional surrender of the enemy. They are prepared to support wholesale violence against enemy civilians in the interest of victory; they do not like limited wars for limited goals. Although they value allies and believe that the United States must honor its word, they do not believe in institutional constraints on the United States' freedom to act, unilaterally if necessary, in self-defense. Historically, Jacksonians have never liked international economic agreements or systems that limit the U.S. government's ability to pursue loose credit policies at home.
Finding populist support for U.S. foreign policy has been the central domestic challenge for policymakers ever since President Franklin Roosevelt struggled to build domestic support for an increasingly interventionist policy vis-à-vis the Axis powers. The Japanese solved Roosevelt's problem by attacking Pearl Harbor, but his sensitivity to Jacksonian opinion did not end with the United States' entry into World War II. From his embrace of unconditional surrender as a war objective to his internment of Japanese Americans, Roosevelt always had a careful eye out for the concerns of this constituency. If he had thought Jacksonian America would have accepted the indefinite stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops abroad, he might have taken a harder line with the Soviet Union on the future of Eastern Europe.
The need to attract and hold populist support also influenced Harry Truman's foreign policy, particularly his approach to Soviet expansionism and larger questions of world order. Key policymakers in the Truman administration, such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson, believed that the collapse of the United Kingdom as a world power had left a vacuum that the United States had no choice but to fill. The United Kingdom had historically served as the gyroscope of world order, managing the international economic system, keeping the sea-lanes open, and protecting the balance of power in the chief geostrategic theaters of the world. Truman administration officials agreed that the Great Depression and World War II could in large part be blamed on the United States' failure to take up the burden of global leadership as the United Kingdom declined. The Soviet disruption of the balance of power in Europe and the Middle East after World War II was, they believed, exactly the kind of challenge to world order that the United States now had to meet.
The problem, as policymakers saw it, was that Jacksonian opinion was not interested in assuming the mantle of the United Kingdom. The Jacksonians were ready to act against definite military threats and, after two world wars, were prepared to support a more active security policy overseas in the 1940s than they were in the 1920s. But to enlist their support for a far-reaching foreign policy, Truman and Acheson believed that it was necessary to define U.S. foreign policy in terms of opposing the Soviet Union and its communist ideology rather than as an effort to secure a liberal world order. Acheson's decision to be "clearer than truth" when discussing the threat of communism and Truman's decision to take Senator Arthur Vandenberg's advice and "scare [the] hell out of the country" ignited populist fears about the Soviet Union, which helped the administration get congressional support for aid to Greece and Turkey and the Marshall Plan. Political leaders at the time concluded that without such appeals, Congress would not have provided the requested support, and historians generally agree.
But having roused the sleeping dogs of anticommunism, the Truman administration would spend the rest of its time in office trying (and sometimes failing) to cope with the forces it had unleashed. Once convinced that communism was an immediate threat to national security, the Jacksonians wanted a more hawkish policy than Acheson and his planning chief, George Kennan, thought was wise. The success of Mao Zedong's revolution in China -- and the seeming indifference of the Truman administration to the fate of the world's most populous country and its network of missionary institutions and Christian converts -- inflamed Jacksonian opinion and set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy's politics of paranoia in the 1950s.
Communism was in many ways a perfect enemy for Jacksonian America, and for the next 40 years, public opinion sustained the high defense budgets and foreign military commitments required to fight it. The priorities of the Cold War from a Jacksonian perspective -- above all, the military containment of communism wherever communists, or left-wing nationalists willing to ally with them, were active -- did not always fit comfortably with the Hamiltonian (commercial and realist) and Wilsonian (idealist and generally multilateral) priorities held by many U.S. policymakers. But in general, the mix of policies necessary to promote a liberal world order was close enough to what was needed to wage a struggle against the Soviets that the liberal-world-order builders were able to attract enough Jacksonian support for their project. The need to compete with the Soviets provided a rationale for a whole series of U.S. initiatives -- the development of a liberal trading system under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Marshall Plan aid tied to the promotion of European economic integration, development assistance in Africa, Asia, and Latin America -- that also had the effect of building a new international system encompassing the noncommunist world.
This approach enabled the United States to win the Cold War and build a flexible, dynamic, and reasonably stable international system that, after 1989, gradually and for the most part peacefully absorbed the majority of the former communist states. It did, however, leave a political vulnerability at the core of the U.S. foreign policy debate, a vulnerability that threatens to become much more serious going forward: today's Jacksonians are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to defend the United States, but they do not believe that U.S. interests are best served by the creation of a liberal and cosmopolitan world order.
AFTER THE END OF HISTORY
After the Soviet Union disobligingly collapsed in 1991, the United States endeavored to maintain and extend its efforts to build a liberal world order. On the one hand, these projects no longer faced the opposition of a single determined enemy; on the other hand, American leaders had to find domestic support for complex, risky, and expensive foreign initiatives without invoking the Soviet threat.
This did not look difficult at first. In the heady aftermath of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, it seemed to many as if the task would be so easy and so cheap that U.S. policymakers could cut defense and foreign aid budgets while a liberal world order largely constructed itself. No powerful states or ideologies opposed the principles of the American world order, and both the economic agenda of liberalizing trade and finance and the Wilsonian agenda of extending democracy were believed to be popular at home and abroad.
Clear domestic constraints on U.S. foreign policy began to appear during the 1990s. The Clinton administration devoted intense efforts to cultivating obstructionist legislators, such as Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, but it was increasingly unable to get the resources and support needed to carry out what it believed were important elements of the United States' agenda abroad. Congress balked at paying the country's UN dues in a timely fashion and, after the GOP congressional takeover in 1994, opposed a range of proposed and actual military interventions. The Senate recoiled from treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and refused to join the International Criminal Court. The relentless decline in support for free trade after the bitter fights over the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement and U.S. entry into the new World Trade Organization in the early 1990s left U.S. diplomats negotiating within a tightening range of constraints, which soon led to a steady deceleration in the construction of a liberal global trading regime.
September 11, 2001, changed this. The high level of perceived threat after the attacks put U.S. foreign policy back to the position it had enjoyed in 1947-48: convinced that an external threat was immediate and real, the public was ready to support enormous expenditures of treasure and blood to counter it. Jacksonians cared about foreign policy again, and the George W. Bush administration had an opportunity to repeat the accomplishment of the Truman administration by using public concern about a genuine security threat to energize public support for a far-reaching program of building a liberal world order.
Historians will be discussing for years to come why the Bush administration missed this opportunity. It may be that in the years after 9/11, the administration was so determined to satisfy domestic Jacksonian opinion that it constructed a response to terrorism -- the kind of no-holds-barred total war preferred by Jacksonians -- that would inevitably undercut its ability to engage with key partners at home and abroad. In any case, by January 2009, the United States was engaged in two wars and a variety of counterterrorism activities around the world but lacked anything like a domestic consensus on even the broadest outlines of foreign policy.
The Obama administration came into office believing that the Bush administration had been too Jacksonian and that its resulting policy choices were chaotic, incoherent, and self-defeating. Uncritically pro-Israel, unilateralist, indifferent to the requirements of international law, too quick to respond with force, contemptuous of international institutions and norms, blind to the importance of non-terrorism-related threats such as climate change, and addicted to polarizing, us-against-them rhetoric, the Bush administration was, the incoming Democrats believed, a textbook case of Jacksonianism run wild. Recognizing the enduring power of Jacksonians in U.S. politics but convinced that their ideas were wrong-headed and outdated, the Obama administration decided that it would make what it believed were the minimum necessary concessions to Jacksonian sentiments while committing itself to a set of policies intended to build a world order on a largely Wilsonian basis. Rather than embracing the "global war on terror" as an overarching strategic umbrella under which it could position a range of aid, trade, and institution-building initiatives, it has repositioned the terrorism threat as one among many threats the United States faces and has separated its world-order-building activities from its vigorous work to combat terrorism.
It is much too early to predict how this will turn out, but it is already clear that the Obama administration faces serious challenges in building support for its foreign policy in a polarized, and to some degree traumatized, domestic environment. The administration is trying to steer U.S. foreign policy away from Jacksonian approaches just as a confluence of foreign and domestic developments are creating a new Jacksonian moment in U.S. politics. The United States faces a continuing threat of terrorism involving domestic as well as foreign extremists, a threat from China that includes both international security challenges in Asia and a type of economic rivalry that Jacksonians associate with the economic woes of the middle class, and a looming federal debt crisis that endangers both the prosperity and the security of the country. The combination of these threats with the perceived cultural and social conflict between "arrogant" elites with counterintuitive ideas and "average" Americans relying on common sense creates the ideal conditions for a major Jacksonian storm in U.S. politics. The importance of the Jacksonian resurgence goes beyond the political problems of the Obama administration; the development of foreign policy strategies that can satisfy Jacksonian requirements at home while also working effectively in the international arena is likely to be the greatest single challenge facing U.S. administrations for some time to come.
THE TEA PARTY CHALLENGE
Forecasting how this newly energized populist movement will influence foreign policy is difficult. Public opinion is responsive to events; a terrorist attack inside U.S. borders or a crisis in East Asia or the Middle East could transform the politics of U.S. foreign policy overnight. A further worsening of the global economic situation could further polarize the politics of both domestic and foreign policy in the United States.
Nevertheless, some trends seem clear. The first is that the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. Ron Paul represents an inward-looking, neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy that has more in common with classic Jeffersonian ideas than with assertive Jacksonian nationalism. Although both wings share, for example, a visceral hostility to anything that smacks of "world government," Paul and his followers look for ways to avoid contact with the world, whereas such contemporary Jacksonians as Sarah Palin and the Fox News host Bill O'Reilly would rather win than withdraw. "We don't need to be the world's policeman," says Paul. Palin might say something similar, but she would be quick to add that we also do not want to give the bad guys any room.
Similarly, the Palinite wing of the Tea Party wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States' profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected. The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic something that seemed much more controversial in the 1930s: that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas. The rise of China and the sullen presence of the threat of terrorism reinforce this perception, and the more dangerous the world feels, the more Jacksonian America sees a need to prepare, to seek reliable allies, and to act. A period like that between 1989 and 2001, when Jacksonian America did not identify any serious threats from abroad, is unlikely to arise anytime soon; the great mass of Tea Party America does not seem headed toward a new isolationism.
Jacksonian support for Israel will also be a factor. Sympathetic to Israel and concerned about both energy security and terrorism, Jacksonians are likely to accept and even demand continued U.S. diplomatic, political, and military engagement in the Middle East. Not all American Jacksonians back Israel, but in general, rising Jacksonian political influence in the United States will lead to stronger support in Washington for the Jewish state. This support does not proceed simply from evangelical Christian influence. Many Jacksonians are not particularly religious, and many of the pro-Jacksonian "Reagan Democrats" are Roman Catholics. But Jacksonians admire Israeli courage and self-reliance -- and they do not believe that Arab governments are trustworthy or reliable allies. They are generally untroubled by Israeli responses to terrorist attacks, which many observers deem "disproportionate." Jacksonian common sense does not give much weight to the concept of disproportionate force, believing that if you are attacked, you have the right and even the duty to respond with overwhelming force until the enemy surrenders. That may or may not be a viable strategy in the modern Middle East, but Jacksonians generally accept Israel's right to defend itself in whatever way it chooses. They are more likely to criticize Israel for failing to act firmly in Gaza and southern Lebanon than to criticize it for overreacting to terrorist attacks. Jacksonians still believe that the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945 was justified; they argue that military strength is there to be used.
Any increase in Jacksonian political strength makes a military response to the Iranian nuclear program more likely. Although the public's reaction to the progress of North Korea's nuclear program has been relatively mild, recent polls show that up to 64 percent of the U.S. public favors military strikes to end the Iranian nuclear program. Deep public concerns over oil and Israel, combined with memories of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis among older Americans, put Iran's nuclear program in Jacksonians' cross hairs. Polls show that more than 50 percent of the public believes the United States should defend Israel against Iran -- even if Israel sets off hostilities by launching the first strike. Many U.S. presidents have been dragged into war reluctantly by aroused public opinion; to the degree that Congress and the public are influenced by Jacksonian ideas, a president who allows Iran to get nuclear weapons without using military action to try to prevent it would face political trouble. (Future presidents should, however, take care. Military engagements undertaken without a clear strategy for victory can backfire disastrously. Lyndon Johnson committed himself to war in Southeast Asia because he believed, probably correctly, that Jacksonian fury at a communist victory in Vietnam would undermine his domestic goals. The story did not end well.)
On other issues, Paulites and Palinites are united in their dislike for liberal internationalism -- the attempt to conduct international relations through multilateral institutions under an ever-tightening web of international laws and treaties. From climate change to the International Criminal Court to the treatment of enemy combatants captured in unconventional conflicts, both wings of the Tea Party reject liberal internationalist ideas and will continue to do so. The U.S. Senate, in which each state is allotted two senators regardless of the state's population, heavily favors the less populated states, where Jacksonian sentiment is often strongest. The United States is unlikely to ratify many new treaties written in the spirit of liberal internationalism for some time to come.
The new era in U.S. politics could see foreign policy elites struggling to receive a hearing for their ideas from a skeptical public. "The Council on Foreign Relations," the pundit Beck said in January 2010, "was a progressive idea of, let's take media and eggheads and figure out what the idea is, what the solution is, then teach it to the media, and they'll let the masses know what should be done." Tea Partiers intend to be vigilant to insure that elites with what the movement calls their "one-world government" ideas and bureaucratic agendas of class privilege do not dominate foreign policy debates. The United States may return to a time when prominent political leaders found it helpful to avoid too public an association with institutions and ideas perceived as distant from, and even hostile to, the interests and values of Jacksonian America.
Concern about China has been growing for some time in American opinion, and the Jacksonian surge makes it more likely that the simmering anger and resentment will come to a boil. Free trade is an issue that has historically divided populists in the United States (agrarians have tended to like it; manufacturing workers have not); even though Jacksonians like to buy cheap goods at Walmart, common sense largely leads them to believe that the first job of trade negotiators ought to be to preserve U.S. jobs rather than embrace visionary "win-win" global schemes.
POPULISM IN PERSPECTIVE