Much of what the Tea Party in America is doing is premised on a particular understanding of American history — and especially of the American Revolution. This sort of political movement and use of history is not new, though it may be uniquely American. The status of the American Revolution is such that it is almost begging to be used and misused for various ideological agendas. Sadly, the Tea Party's use of the American Revolution may be among the most egregious misuses yet.
Jill Lepore writes in her book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History:
Every generation tells its own story about what the Revolution was about, of course, since no one is alive who remembers it anymore. But the Tea Party's Revolution wasn't just another generation's story—it was more like a reenactment—and its complaint about taxation without representation followed the inauguration of a president who won the electoral vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote.
In an age of universal suffrage, the citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation. Nationwide, voter turnout, in November of 2008, was 57 percent, the highest since Nixon was elected in 1968. Something more was going on, something not about taxation or representation but about history itself. It wasn't only that the Tea Party's version of American history bore almost no resemblance to the Revolution I study and teach. That was true, but it wasn't new. People who study the Revolution have almost always found the speeches people make about it to be something other than "true history."
One of Jill Lepore's core arguments is that "nothing trumps the Revolution". By not merely linking itself to the Revolution, but in fact claiming to be part of the exact same movement despite the distance in time, the Tea Party garnered for itself automatic credibility and respect — regardless of what it's members actually said, did, or believed.
Aside from the name and the costume, the Tea Party offered an analogy: rejecting the bailout is like dumping the tea; health care reform is like the Tea Act; our struggle is like theirs. Americans have drawn Revolutionary analogies before. They have drawn them for a very long time. When in doubt, in American politics, left, right, or center, deploy the Founding Fathers.
For some reason, though, the Tea Party followers ignored the fact that even some of the Founders offered some support for public health insurance:
In 1798, John Adams signed an "Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen": state and later federal government officials collected taxes from shipmasters, which were used to build hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen. In the 1940s, health care reformers used this precedent to bolster their case. Government-sponsored health care wasn't un-American, these reformers argued; Adams had thought of it.
Such facts don't matter to the Tea Party any more than facts about what is really in the Bible matter to fundamentalist Christians. That's because the Tea Party is its own brand of fundamentalism, every bit as noxious and ridiculous as the religious forms:
Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past—"the founding"—is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts—"the founding documents"—are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.
Facts, reality, and logic don't matter to religious fundamentalists because fundamentalists rely primarily on faith. They are already convinced that they need everything they need to in order to combat the existential threats they believe to be lurking all around them. Facts, reality, and logic also don't matter to historical fundamentalists like the Tea Party because they also believe they have the True Faith. They are also worried about what they perceive as existential threats all around them.