American Unexceptionalism

The Tea Party is Special -- Just Not in the Way It Thinks

Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally in Iowa Courtesy Reuters

As proudly patriotic as it is, the Tea Party is not exceptional -- or at least not in the ways it likes to think. The angry conservative group, which accuses U.S. President Barack Obama of betraying the constitution and driving the United States toward “European-style” socialism, epitomizes a libertarian strain of thought and action with deep roots in its country’s past. The same alarm -- that the United States needs protecting from a leviathan state supposedly alien to the cherished values handed down by the Founding Fathers -- has been raised by the Liberty League in the 1930s, by the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the Christian right from the 1970s to the present. Grassroots activists who embraced that credo propelled Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980.

But subtract the colonial-period costumes and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and Tea Party events are not easily distinguishable from the political rallies organized by parties across the Atlantic. Antagonism to taxes, corporate regulation, a strong central government, expensive welfare systems, and recent immigrants (particularly Muslim ones) are central to the platforms of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Independence Party in the United Kingdom, and the Lega Nord in Italy, among others. Until recently, the National Front in France embraced the free-market agenda too, and it certainly shares the anti-immigrant fervor of its counterparts. All these parties demand a return to the supposed traditional cultural values -- and racial demography -- of their native lands. They view the European Union the same way that the Tea Party views the federal government: as a tyrannical bureaucracy that robs ordinary men and women of their liberties.

Most of the right-wing parties in Europe predate the Tea Party, but they are motivated by the same big fear: that a state run by cosmopolitan elites is taxing native-born citizens with middling incomes to help a lazy,

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