A Perversion of Jefferson, vers. Deux

Elizabeth Mazzara

[Editors' note: Today, we welcome Elizabeth Mazzara to our roster of contributors. Most recently, she was the finance director for Bill Bradbury for Governor. Welcome, Elizabeth!]

In January of 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison. The Constitutional Convention had been called for May of that year. The eastern states were in the middle of a series of escalating uprisings that were named after farmer, and Revolutionary War Veteran, Daniel Shay who led the first insurrection in Massachusetts. With immense war debt and grossly deflated currency, concern was growing that these United States, the American Experiment, might already be near its' end.

It was in this context that Jefferson wrote what may well be one of his best known ideas. To quote:

The mass of humanity under [a republican government] enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem. [I prefer perilous liberty to quiet servitude.] Better even, this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs.

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.

Jefferson stood apart from his colleagues on this point. He believed that uprisings, protests against the government, public questioning of the rulers and their rules was exactly what was needed in order to keep a government both in check and responsive. Indeed, the inability for the early colonists to have this sort of voice is a very large part of what led to the Revolution itself.

However, I am not sure Jefferson had the "Tea Party (baggers?)" in mind when he wrote that. Let's start with the basics...

  1. the assumption underlying the "Jeffersonian Rebellion" is that citizens are decrying actual harm (whether direct action or policy) by the Government.
  2. It also assumes that in publicly airing these grievances, even a failed rebellion (or uprising or protest) will remind the Government who is really "in charge", i.e. the voters.

It is difficult for me to believe Jefferson would put the current outpouring of hate, ignorance and bigotry in the same category as his “political rebellions”. A quick view of some of my favorite "Tea Party" signs?

"Taxpayers are Obama's Jews for the ovens."
"Obama, what you talkin' 'bout Willis. Spend my money?"
"No Taxes. Obama loves taxes. Bankrupt USA. Killing babies."
"Barrack Hussein Obama: The New face of Hitler."

For those of you paying attention, there should be no surprise that I am relying on the father of American's right to protest as I denounce a group who so inappropriately has attached themselves to (arguably) America's first effective political protest against the British.

Since writing the first edition of this essay last fall, what I thought was a passing phase of anger and outrage and hate from the Right has now become legitimized as a political player across the nation. With a national organization (loosely defined) as well as state and local groups (all autonomous as far as I can tell) now endorsing candidates in elections from the local and city level on up to Congress, it is clear this group is here to stay.

What is surprising, I suppose, is actually NOT that this organization has taken hold. While I am concerned about their message and truly believe that their contemptible, hate-motivated rhetoric is NOT what Jefferson intended when he wrote that letter, that has actually taken back seat to a second issue.

What is surprising to me is that while we see an effective, if outrageous, movement from the Right to push a very aggressive agenda, the Left is once again talking about moving to the Center.

It is not clear to me why Progressives believe that leaving the values and ideals of the Left is our correct next step. It seems to me that when we start from the Center, there is no place to go from there.

Calling myself a progressive identifies me as someone who holds a political philosophy that not only seeks social reform and change that advances equity and fairness and access to services, but asks that one actively engage in that process. Being a Progressive, for me, means actively seeking to bring about this change; to actively take part in social reform efforts. Holding these values is key to me as a Progressive.

And, I don’t understand why we think that now, of all times, repositioning ourselves as centrists is the right (get it?) move (or particularly Progressive, to be honest). When you look around the country, we are seeing Progressives moving through primaries, taking out centrist Democrats. Key examples? Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania defeating Arlen Specter in their recent primary; Andrew Romanoff who argued that Democratic incumbents were “refusing to take Democratic ideals far enough and making typical Washington compromises at the cost of the people” and went on to garner enough votes at their convention to make it onto the general election ballot; and an almost win in Arkansas by Bill Halter against Blue Dog Dem Blanche Lincoln, that has led to a run off on June 8th.

These successes tell me that Progressives can and do represent an element of the Democratic Party. And that being a Progressive does indeed mean being tied to certain values that have traditionally been considered “Left”.

What I am not clear on is why we would abandon this march toward electoral success in favor of a muddy-middle. If we challenged ourselves to become full participants in the political process (i.e. things like actually voting), with a plan for action (i.e. fundraising and support of Progressive candidates), and a dedication to the Jeffersonian principle to use the public forum as a place to initiate and engage in political outrage, rather than just reacting to it, we would begin to see REAL change. Real change from the LEFT, that is.

It is hard for me to understand why Progressives would turn over the right to a little Rebellion now and then to the extreme Right. Maybe someone standing in the Center can explain?

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    Bottom line, I agree with you. It's great to hear a new voice. I would paint it totally different though, in shades of gray.

    In one sense I think the TEA people are very much like the revolutionaries. People like John Hancock were upset that they were losing profit margins on imported tea, as the British were dumping cheap tea from India onto the American market. Hancock and a few friends contrived to paint standard commodity hijinx as political oppression. While the rich were the ones outraged, they convinced the common person that THEY were the ones that were being violated.

    Dressing as native Americans to do the dirty work was much like the anonymous cowards that used to post here for their right wing talk masters. If the guy that used to troll here that started every post with "Komrade..." had lived then, I have no doubt that we would have seen him dressed as an Indian.

    Despite all that, the revolution became meaningful and changed world history. Again, the TEA movement may be similar. It may be a load today, but it taps real sentiment for a change in the way we conceptualize government. If real dialog ever happens between them and the perennial 4% that vote Green, Nader, etc., like the revolution we might actually have something worthwhile.

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      Fair enough. May have stretched my use of the start of the Revolution as based only on noble intentions. Indeed, let's remember the Constitutional Convention itself was called because many of the wealthy, white folks were seeing their fortunes diminish as inflation spiraled out of control. That said, I hope my point stands. And that's that Progressives do well to stand and argue firmly from the Left. Thanks for being the first to post a comment on my very first BlueOregon contribution.

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      The Teabaggers resemble little of those who dumped tea into Boston Harbor. The Sons of Liberty were fighting against "taxation without representation". The Teabaggers are fighting having to pay taxes at all and to continue to shrink government passed the point where it can do anything effectively.

      I also think Shay's rebellion was one of those times that Jefferson was way out of touch with what was going on. He wrote that letter from his perch as ambassador to France--far away from the problems at home. George Washington rightly wrote to the contrary--urging a defeat of the insurrection. In fact, Shay's Rebellion was what urged Washington out of retirement to dump the Articles of Confederation and expand the federal government via the Constitution.

      I think Elizabeth's use of the rebellion to talk about the Teabaggers is apt--but it seems like the Founding Father who had this one right was Washington rather than Jefferson.

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        Agreed. Jefferson sat from and wrote this letter from a VERY comfortable lazy boy in France.

        That said - he was keenly aware of what he was missing and - the uprisings in Mass were (without a doubt) the call to action for the Constitutional Convention as the Articles of Confederation failed.

        Now, I will ask my mentors (come on Cornell and Jim) to step in here as all I know, and have taught (and have forgotten) about the Constitutional Convention is thanks to them (the learning part, not the forgetting part) but...Jefferson was indeed very aware of his absence and was responding best he could. Washington neither attended the Convention nor signed the Constitution. It was his willingness to step up as "President" rather than "Monarch" or "King" that led to the final "BIG" state "SMALL" compromise which finally led to our House of Reps/Senate and the Executive. Professor Clayton, Professor Foster, am I wrong here?

        Washington was a RELUCTANT participant in the new government post-Revolution, not an active voice in its' creation. And he certainly had no hand in the the Convention. It was James Madisons' brilliance and foresight and writing that replaced the failing Articles of Confederation with what we now know as the Constitution in Philadelphia, not Washington...


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        Agreed Carla. Though like the way conservatives only seem interested if second half of the 2nd amendment while willfully ignoring the first, the Sons of Liberty were not opposed to taxes ideologically at all. They were against what amounted to indentured servitude in that they paid taxes (protectionist taxation favoring multinational corporations I might add) with no say in parliament or lawmaking at all.

        The central principle though was the "without representation" and not the "taxation" thought the later was favoring multinational corporations over local businesses and was a legitimate issue as well, but not how the GOP/teapartiers view/spin it.

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      Interesting comment about profit margins on imported teas, kinda like NAFTA now.....

      I'd be with a movement that was more concerned about family-wage jobs being sacrificed on the alter of "global capitalism", than it was about big government. Both parties have sold out...

      The right has a much better grasp on media manipulation only because most of their causes benefit the corporate syndicate that has basically bought off almost all avenues of communication in this country. It's no accident the Tea Party is growing, they dominate because the corporate media can't get enough of them.

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    I couldn't agree with you more. Middle-of-the-road means ordinary, no movement, no ideas.

    Keep it up!

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    Very apt argument. The only reasonable reaction to the Rebellious and aggressive politics of the Right-wing Tea-Party is an unapologetic move by progressives to combat right-wing offensives. Metaphorically speaking, in Militaristic terms, you could not and would not engage an enemy without equal firepower and/or access to resources. Why sacrifice our own views as progressives in an attempt to placate the extreme right-wingers? Does running as a centrist mean we have a chance to garner the support of more conservative voters?

    The only logical reaction is massing a progressive presence in American politics to ensure ongoing democratic values in the face of such right-wing absurdity. A balance, if you will. A unified front by liberal democrats is something we have never managed to arrange en masse. So, instead of massing our forces around a centrist candidate, we must advocate for the presence and election of progressive candidates to balance the democratic system throughout the U.S.

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      The part you don't understand is the tea party folks were called to action by the left-wing media and political offensives of the unions and the Soros front-group moveon.org types.

      Nothing pisses off a liberal more than their own tactics being used against them, I guess.

      So now you call for a reactionary response from the "progressives" to the conservatives who are reacting to the militant liberals?

      Does that make it checkmate? Or a stalemate?

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        Sorry. Did you miss the part where I listed the actual writing on the signs that were taken from actual photos from rallies? I have no problem with a little rebellion. I do have a problem with racism and ignorance being mistaken for political capital.

        And, "militant liberals"? I love it. Tell me more.

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          Well it is an interesting theory for sure. Many could, however take an equal sampling of abhorant and dangerous signs from PETA, moveon, the WTO protestors and numerous "peace" movements from the past 40 years. there are fringe elements in every group, yet they do not define the group for an intelligent observer.

          fail to listen to the TEA party at the peril of missing the true mood of many who will be voting in November. I'm not a member because of their Johnny Come Lately theatrics. I do, however understand the groundswell of emotion behind the reasonable parts of their rhetoric.

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        You are being played. Your "Soros front-group claptrap is no different than black-helicopter goofiness only with a new conveniently contrived boogeymen as the target of raging ignorance.

        You have been fed the same "Soros" crap by Dick Armey (Freedomworks) who funded the initial organizing of the "tea party" movement to go after those damn "liberals: (oh scary) while they literally laugh all the way to the banks whose bail-outs and deregulatory scams blew up the economy. They get richer, you get poorer.

        You are being played, again, by the GOP to attack the boogeyman living under your bed.

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    I am sorry, but you really have no idea what the Tea Party movement is about. It is not about hate or bigotry, it is coming from a strong distrust of government. There are millions of people out there that do not want further erosion of individual liberties. As federal government increases in size and scope, they see individual liberties diminish. They value equality of opportunity; they are not looking for equality of outcome. It continues to baffle me why some people want to see the power of the federal government grow when their side is in control, and then cry in despair when the other side takes charge and uses that power to do things they don't like. The answer is to limit size and scope of the federal government and return power to the people.

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      Again.Please take a minute to go back to the part where I quote actual signs from an actual rally of tea-party folks.

      Am not sure how you can intellectualize any of those. Let's focus on that. Not on what you see as 'the broader movement'. But on the commentary I was making here.

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    Ed - Where were these people during the Bush years? Who is paying for the media that fuels this movement and why?

    The main point about Tea Partiers is not that they are bigoted people who hate Barack Obama, it is that the movement itself has largely been co-opted by the same interests that helped to drive our economy off of a cliff in the first place.

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      The people were right here, and the frustration was growing. It is one of the reasons Obama was elected. People wanted 'change'; it didn't matter what. Many people are now getting something they didn't sign up for.

      I don't see this is a media fueled movement. Nor has it been created by special interests. However I am sure that both have taken advantage of it. The same thing is happening with the green energy movement except on a larger scale.

      You seem to be saying that the movement started out as sincere, but since it has been co-opted it is therefore invalidated?

      I am not sure what interests you are referring to; many of the interests that drove us off the cliff in the first place are still in charge and doing nothing to fix the core problems.

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      ikes. again. I agree Sal but.. please, the signs I quoted were REAL SIGNS from a REAL RALLY! Media and corporatism, bad. But, real people with real bigotry and hatred fueling a very real movement.

      Fascism (a la Bush) is bad. Yes. But we need to address the movement that had taken shape ... no?

      (and before you all freak out, let's remind ourselves the definition of fascism ... while i'm not a wiki-fan for sake of ease and to make a point..."Fascists seek to organize a nation on corporatist perspectives, values, and systems such as the political system and the economy...Fascists believe that a nation is an organic community that requires strong leadership, singular collective identity, and the will and ability to commit violence and wage war in order to keep the nation strong." (source: wiki:'fascism')

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        hmm, sounds like many progressives who post on the internet to me. Fascism; REALLY? what a trite and overused phrase.

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        Elizabeth, you should look at other sources for your definition of Fascism. From Websters:

        "1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition."

        Your definition speaks of a 'corporatist perspective', not sure what that means.

        I am not much of a Bush fan, but calling him Fascist is a real stretch. Just about the same as calling Obama a Fascist.

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        PS - I would also ask you: If a sign comparing Obama to Hitler demonstrates the Tea Party movements 'bigotry and hatred', what does calling Bush a Fascist say about you?

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          I included the definition of Fascist for that very reason. I welcome disagreement about the definition I chose to use. My focus is on the corporatist, unilateral nation building aspects of Fascism. Maybe too much of a limb, but am willing to cling there for a bit.

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      I really wish I could +99 this comment.

      I find it utterly bizarre that the Tea Party folks completely ignored the massive increase in government intrusion during the Bush years - and got active precisely at the moment that Obama moved into the White House.

      Seems to me that belies the truth: it's all just so much partisan nonsense, not a legit expression of principled concern.

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        It wasn't being ignored; not sure where you are getting that. I would agree that it was being ignored by the Republican party though. Plenty of people were fed up with Bush, the Democrats, and the Republicans, spending like crazy and intruding. There is legitimate, principled concern out there.

        I think the Obama election has made it so extreme that people who are not normally politically active finally awakened. It was a shock to the system.

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          Yet they couldn't be bothered to actually hold a rally until Obama became President. How convenient.

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            Most of them were busy working and making a living. Really, it took a shock to the system to wake people up. There was a lot of discontent building, it finally reached a boiling point with this last election.

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        Thank you Kari. I think you hit the nail here.I think the argument that the Tea Party represents principled political philosophy is simply absurd. Unless "reactionary" is now concerned "principled".

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    Nice post Elizabeth.

    You'll like this from Bill Maher comparing British conservatives to America's scary brand of conservatives/tea baggers:

    "Because the English are grown ups, including their conservatives who enjoy a wonderful luxury that conservatives on this side of the pond do not. They're allowed to be sane. They don't have to pander to creationists and anti-intellectuals. Only in this dumb country do liberals and conservatives argue over things like "evolution" and "climate change" and whether "sick people should be left to die in the street."

    Here's a link to the entire piece, it's hilarious. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-maher/new-rule-the-republican-l_b_585542.html

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    Minor point, we have no Federal government at all when the above letter was sent. There was no United States.

    They were thirteen confederated yet sovereign nations (think NATO), who were all being bled dry by the repayment of war debt demanded by foreign investors insisting on payment in gold and silver.

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      ...we had no...

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        It was written before the first constitutional convention and after the articles of confederation, as noted in the first paragraph of the piece. And so, yes - not "A" United States. A loose confederation of small nations. Am not sure how that impacts the argument.

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          It doesn't counter your argument, but rather underscores the absurdity of the teapartier/state-rights purists who see the Federal government as a bad thing. In fact that Constitution which the teapartiers and faux "conservatives" try and wrap themselves in is by its very existence an inherently central-government foundational document (though a balanced one). It was called into existence by the need to act as a counter to a purely "state's rights" reality on the ground and in then current law.

          The genius of our system is redundant tensions built at various levels to constantly weigh individual vs. common welfare, individual vs. state, state vs federal, etc. interest as a check and balance set of systems. Where is there an avenue of redress when the individual harms the common welfare and vice-versa? The Federal system allows avenues of redress which do not demand revolution when a state goes to far or not far enough to secure liberty and/or the common welfare.

          So in some ways I was positing the "American experiment" had not yet truly begun in earnest since at that point, "we" were the united States, not the United States.

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            Great conversation guys. What a novel approach to use history as a tool to understand our present trials and tribulations! But to paraphrase W, 'history doesn't matter, it already happened.' In all seriousness, thank you for this dialogue.

            If one can go back to this period of time but about 7 years later after the constitution was ratified, it was the 'Whiskey Rebellion' that really tested our new form of government. An excise tax on whiskey implemented by Alexander Hamilton to fund the national debt set off this firestorm by 'western farmers'. Supported and commanded by Pres. Washington, a militia was formed to put down the rebellion (in the end never needed) but, not surprisingly, when Jefferson took office, the Democrat-Republicans repealed this law. Much of it was unenforceable but fact is it was one of the first tests of the federal gov't and one of the first times they used force on her citizens.

            Ultimately, the tea party are individualists to a fault and hypocritical to say the least. They demand change not for the good of many but for themselves. That is a recipe for disaster.

            Personally, I don't have much respect for the fringe on either side of the aisle. The art of compromise has been lost and is considered a sign of weakness. The ability to reach across the aisle shows great courage but is often condemned. Progressives bring the ideas and ammunition but they'll need the middle, and those willing to reach across the divide to make those ideas come to fruition. Morse, Hatfield, Kennedy, Humphrey, Jackson, McCall are some of the elected officials who saw the benefit of working together and finding solutions.

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              Please tell me how the principles of the Tea Party movement are a 'recipe for disaster'. And please indicate how they are hypocritical. What I see are the principles that made this country great. This country has provided more opportunity for its citizens than any country on earth. And this 'individualist' philosophy helps everyone, not just some.

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    The Tea Party may like to think they're the standard bearers of the Founders but I believe they pale greatly in comparison.

    Tea Party is for the party of the selfish 'me', not for the greater good of 'us.' They may unite together for the common cause of their understanding of individualism but in the end it's a very selfish community. Indeed, individualism has a very historic and honorable place in the history of this country, but I don't see a lot of honor in the actions of many of the members of the Tea Party.

    Yes, the government of this diverse country has provided for many but if it wasn't for the fight of 'all' (Labor, Child Welfare/Labor, Woman's Rights, Civil Rights, etc.) against subversive elements in this country, the opportunities would have (and were) been limited at best.

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