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Jon Cowan
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Jon Cowan

Jonathan Cowan is president and co-founder of Third Way, a think-tank of the progressive movement. In the Clinton administration, he served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Open disdain for government

Q: On this July 4th weekend, we celebrate Adams, Jefferson and other rebels who dared to challenge the established political order. Putting your own political preferences aside, what do you think the leaders of the American Revolution would view the leaders of today's 'Tea Party?'

Within the first generation of Founders, there were intense disagreements about the very nature of the government they were creating. All eventually agreed that they must, in that famous phrase, either "hang together or hang separately" as they challenged the established political order. But many, led for many years intellectually by Alexander Hamilton, believed that we needed a strong central government as an integral part of the American experiment.

The open disdain that today's Tea Partiers have for the federal government - and their belief that it should only provide for national security but play a minimal role in every other aspect of American life and the economy - would be anathema to many of the founders.

By Jon Cowan

 |  July 2, 2010; 6:06 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The Founding Fathers had mixed beliefs about how strong the Federal government should be.

What they ALL would have agreed upon, however, is that the Federal Government should not be between 20% to 30% of the economy as it is today.

If that had ever been proposed, the Constitution would not have been ratified by a single state.

Those Founding Fathers who favored a stronger central governmemt were reacting to the complete weakness of Central government under the Articles of Confederation. They favored a single currency, a post office, an army/navy and wanted to ensure that each state would not establish tarrifs on goods from other states. Their basic goals were that the US should speak as a single voice to foreign countries ahd we should eliminate barriers to trade among the states.

Big Govermnment backers today seek to blur the lines between that fairly small government and the behemouth Government we have today.

Trees need to have their branches pruned from time to time to remain healthy. So do Governments. Government will become smaller. It has no choice, because the country lacks the resources to sustan its monster sized Government. The only question is when and how Government shrinks.

Posted by: jfv123 | July 6, 2010 10:11 AM
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The Founders liked a powerful and strong centralized government? Oh, that's right, of course they did. Like when the Articles of Confederation were ratified and provided for a system of government that had so little power that it had to be replaced by a stronger national government, as empowered by the Constitution, a charter of negative power for the governing bodies. Then, to further the limitations of the national government, the Congress (and States) passed a Bill of Rights, one of which said, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Whatever we may think that those words mean now, when they were written they meant a limit of (unthinkable) proportions to the National Government. (Don't believe me? Go check the source documents for the 10th Amendment at http://www.consource.org/index.asp?bid=574). The idea that because Hamilton was a proponent of massive government many or all of the founders were as well is not based in fact. The Tea Partiers (thanks to the other commentators who so kindly used such vulgar terms) protest because they feel powerless against the change Obama promised to bring (and has brought) to the country. They feel that, like President Obama said, the finances of the Federal Government should match their own in times of downturn. They feel that their elected officials, Republican and Democrat, are not listening to their voices when they ask them to vote against bills they see as terrible. They feel that their letters and questions to their Representatives are going unanswered (or openly mocked as Rep. Fortney Stark did). How is that different from the position of the Founders in 1776? Thomas Jefferson wrote, and John Adams eloquently defended, this paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, "In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people." Both the Founders and the modern Tea Partiers felt frustration for a system that has turned a deaf ear to their struggles. So to get the attention of their rules they dump Tea in Boston Harbor and, heaven forbid, they protest in time honored tradition of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, the Woman's rights movements, etc. Protesting a government viewed as tyrannical, whether that government taxes your pins, paper, cards, and tea, or your income, land, food, future and livelihood ties John and Samuel Adams to me and all the other tea partiers out there who want less government and more freedom.

Posted by: mmaddox76 | July 6, 2010 12:33 AM
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@DLGREENE

"The tea party movement, in my opinion, is anti-social and willfully uniformed and misinformed. They seem to think that somehow our monetary system appears from nowhere, ..."

I agree in full. Moreover, The Founders were "uninformed" as well, but not (here is the mistake) willfully uninformed by The Smartest Guy In The Room(tm).

Moderns have fallen hook line and sinker for the "No Wizard - No OZ Paradox of Economics". This is not, of course, a paradox at all but rather an ethical perversion (affectation) of the selectively blind. The Founders had only one governance (The King) and one Labor Exploitation (Slavery) from which to draw examples. Naturally conversations about the ethics of a solution (Leadership) mixed both topics.

In fact, The Founders got Governance right, and agreed that Slavery was intractable for Government alone because the evil was done in the Economic Domain.

So, in no particular order
-The Africans picked the cotton
-The Chinese Built the Railroads
-The jobs were sent off shore (exploit your own people)
-The Unions were hated on principle (but not for low representation, which feeds exploitation but requires misinformation)
-The Underground Railroad failed to relieve stress fast enough.
-Immigrants from everywhere fought on both sides of the Civil War, because, hey, it's a job
-The Mexicans Immigrated to a low life, because, hey, it's a job

The Founders had no illusions that the Exploitation/Deportation Cycle was ethical or good leadership. That's the Wizard talking.

The Tea Party mocks the Government for not having the "visible" results of a Wizard and for not having the "invisible" results intended by The Founders. It's just smarmy argument from the (ever-so-hip) Moderns.

Posted by: gannon_dick | July 5, 2010 5:52 PM
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The tea party movement, in my opinion, is anti-social and willfully uniformed and misinformed. They seem to think that somehow our monetary system appears from nowhere, as do roads, national parks, managed national lands, clean air and clean water, scientific and medical research, embassies, safe food and drugs, and on and on. They don't believe in the social contract of social security, don't want all Americans to share the cost of health care, and so on.
Comparing the tea party to our founding fathers is an interesting exercise but requires one to imagine what the founding fathers would make of our modern society. That is strongly speculative which means that many views can legitimately be held.
There are plenty of things wrong with our government. The tea party approach, however, strikes me as extremely self-indulgent and intellectually lazy.

Posted by: dlgreene | July 5, 2010 8:30 AM
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The first gen Americans would see the baggers as a bunch of lazy malcontent pansies. Matter of fact, with the disrespectful nonsense that tea partiers spew, I don't think any of the baggers would have survive the duels that they would have had to engage in with the "founding fathers".

Posted by: bushidollar | July 2, 2010 10:04 PM
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