Tea Party and the Right  
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If Only the Tea Party Crowd Knew Where Their Ideas Came from

Tea Partiers should learn their history.

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These friends were imagining something not yet anywhere seen: a society blending personal freedom and spiritual seeking with universal sympathy, so that everyone could suck all the marrow out of life. Most of them thought they were the first to even imagine it. They didn't know that they were only forging the next link in a historical chain of imagining—a chain of political mythmaking—stretching back to the American Revolution.

As for the size of government, I don't recall it being a burning issue back then outside a small circle of political philosophy wonks. For the rest of us, it seemed just a matter of common sense. The innate sense of sympathy, as well as direct contact with the marrow of life, had been stunted for far too long by a society that valued profits and material goods above people. It would be many years before everyone's genuine needs would be fully met by spontaneous acts of benevolence and love.

Until then, government should fill the gaps, since only government has the resource to make sure all are filled. But it should stay out where it does more harm than good—most obviously, back then, in Vietnam.

So if we drag the Tea Party and its fellow-travelers (kicking and screaming, no doubt) back into their proper historical context, we discover that the size of the government is not the crucial issue at all. They are here to remind us of something much bigger: a grand mythic vision that appeared at the very birth of the nation and has remained with us ever since, periodically blazing up in individuals or groups who have articulated it in clear and sometimes eloquent words.

So far the spotlight on the Tea Party has done much more to obscure than illuminate this mythic vision. But history has its way of playing unexpected tricks on us. Exhibit A: If it weren't for the Tea Party's vehement opposition, the U.S. would probably be dropping bombs on Syria right now, and very possibly sinking deeper into prolonged military involvement there.

So let's give thanks where thanks are due, recall the patriotic far right's true roots in America's radical history, and do what we can to cultivate those roots so that they’ll give rise to a healthier plant in the future.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.

 
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