The Tea Party is Unconstitutional

David Sehat has a great opinion piece up at the Christian Science Monitor where he argues that the current Tea Party has more in common with the antifederalists that opposed the Constitution than they do with the Constitution’s federalist framers.

This argument is instructive, but not quite in the way that tea partiers imagine. Though the tea party’s philosophy is clear enough, it obscures a telling irony: Even though tea partiers appeal to the Constitution to support their position, they often sound more like Antifederalist opponents of the Constitution than the Constitution’s supporters.

This is because the original vision of the Constitution did not seek to keep the national government small and in its place, as the tea partiers claim. The Constitution sought, instead, to strengthen the national government in order to solve the problem of federal taxation.


5 thoughts on “The Tea Party is Unconstitutional

  1. I haven’t read Sehat’s piece yet (and I certainly will), but let me probe another approach to this point. Although the Tea Party, like the ant-Federalists, advocate a smaller role for the national government, important differences remain that I believe bear witness to some problems with the “unconstitutional” picture. They are not disputing the statements in the Constitution as valid powers delegated between the feds and the states or the right of the federal government to mandate taxation (unlike the Articles of Confederation). The Tea Party claims that the current structure and operation of the federal government oversteps the limits of federal authority outlined in the Constitution. This represents a very different qualitative claim than anti-federalism. Thus, I think what we’re dealing with here is not something to be taken as a serious refutation of Tea Party logic, but a subtle attempt by its opposition to marginalize the movement as irrational (like I warned against in my blog last fall on the The religion of the Tea Party). While certainly the framers of the Constitution couldn’t envisage the kind of government we have in today’s post-industrial order, the issue is actually whether the Constitution has accommodate the changes that have happened to the federal government over the preceding two centuries.


    1. I think you’re right about a lot , D-Lo, but I think your approach cedes too much ground too early. Sehat is taking on the fundamental point the TP folks make–that the Constitution’s main purpose is to limit federal power. Sehat argues, rather, that the Constitution was built to expand and enforce federal power. The Tea Party weights the issue to their favor from the beginning by claiming that the Constitution is a limiting document. If we take Sehat’s rendering of the history, then the question shifts ground and moves from whether the federal government is overstepping its limits to a question of how far expansion of power should go. I don’t think his argument marginalizes them as irrational, rather, I think it points to a set of historical assumptions that are erroneous and presupposition to their argument that is unproven.

      I’ll again point out Jill Lepore’s book where she is quick to grant the TP rationality and common sense but notes how their history is faulty. I think such an approach is quite fair–you can tell someone they are flat wrong without telling them they are unreasonable.


      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mike. If the anchor of this argument is the dispute over whether the framers intended to “limit” or “empower” the national government, I see how we could group the Tea Party with the anti-federalists. Still, I made this point in my earlier comment when I referred to the similar goals between Tea Partiers and Anti-Federalists concerning limited government. The Federalists’ intent may very well have been to view the Constitution as empowering rather than limiting, but this does not entail that any subsequent attempt to locate limits within the document must be characterized as either “unconstitutional” or “anti-Federalist.” “Constitutionalist” is not analogous to “Federalist.” The accusations of faulty history might rest on an assumption that Federalist intentions serve as the primary or at least most authentic authority on the meaning of the Constitution in the context of its ratification. This is certainly not simply the case. In addition, I think that what matters here isn’t the historical precision of the Tea Party’s position but rather how it is located within the current context; why do they want to understand the document as limiting? Telling a political opponent that their history is “erroneous” and expecting this to solve the problem or undermine their power is extremely optimistic (remember Sam Gill), as the historical accuracy of any position could be brought under suspicion because all history ultimately is “unproven.” My question continues to be: why are these kinds of counterarguments generated on the left? That don’t engage the grievances of the Tea Party directly? Instead they attack the reasonableness (whether this be deductive consistency such as “keep your govt. hands off my medicare” or inductive moves from questionable historical claims) of the argumentation. The conclusion to which I’ve arrived is that these tactics allow the opposition the appearance of superiority while safely avoiding comment on the current social conditions of interest. Progressive arguments against the Tea Party rarely (if ever) defend government debt, demand-side economic policy, or the size of the federal bureaucracy. Instead, the debate becomes a derivation of itself, an argument about an argument.

        Anyway, I love the lively discussion. Thanks for posting the original article and for challenging me to clarify my own position.


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