Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Anarchy's progeny

Q: The tea-party movement doesn't want a single leader. After all, the last thing it wants is to become part of the "establishment." But in recent primaries, tea-party candidates ended up battling each other, enabling some incumbents to win. Does a successful organization need a leader to steer the boat? Or is it enough for the upstarts to oppose the "old guard" on principle and to agree on some key ideas?

More like Mad Hatters chattering nonsensically at Alice's table than rebellious colonials purposefully destroying the tea cargo in Boston Harbor, participants in the tea-party movement seem organized only insofar as they share a deep sense of grievance toward government. Plato warned us about such people in The Republic: Democracies tend to degenerate into anarchies which, by definition, reject any notion of authority except that of the mob.

Anarchy, as the sad lessons of history demonstrate too often, ripens the climate for tyranny. The emergence of leaders is a natural part of the political cycle, and leaders with strong tendencies to control the mob usually emerge from the mob. Hence, the 1960's chaos movements produced anarchic leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Huey Newton.

Rand Paul is the current face of the tea-party movement, but not universally accepted as the movement's leader. Like his father Ron, Rand has a cult following but is weird enough to remain a fringe figure rather than a movement leader. (Of course, he may well win the Senate seat vacated by Jim Bunning of Kentucky, a Republican whose own track record illustrates the plain fact that weirdness is a trait that can be found in politicians of all parties.)

As anarchies slide into tyranny, they notoriously kill their own emergent leaders who become too powerful. Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution and architect of the subsequent Reign of Terror designed to quell the chaos unleashed by the revolution, eventually met his fate at the guillotine as well when the people he liberated turned against his power grab.

The United States is the world's longest-running experiment in democracy, and its durability is due in large part to the system of checks and balances built into the Constitution -- the branches of government have sufficient power to hold each other in check, and the reservation of some powers to the states further diffuses governing authority. If something goes awry in one branch or one state, the other parts of the system work to balance it out. Thank you, Founders!

This is a system that can tolerate a great deal of dissent, and even anarchy in various sectors, without having the government collapse, unlike other democratic systems that collapse regularly under the weight of dissenting parties.

The tea-party movement is a legitimate expression of dissent from government policies, but some of its claims reveal a disturbing lack of historical accuracy. For example, the real Boston Tea Party was not about rejecting government or taxation at all, but rather, the purpose was to demand that taxation could only be legitimate if imposed by a legislature duly elected by the citizens so taxed.

The original tea partiers wanted government, albeit self-government. They were not anarchists. They did not reject the idea of taxation at all, but rather, the idea of taxation imposed by authority they did not elect.

The current movement that claims the tea-party mantle has no discernable ideology other than rejection of governmental action and the very existence of our current political leaders. This rejection denies the reality of the power legitimately exercised by citizens at the ballot box; they seem to forget that "We, the People" choose our government, as the original Boston Tea Party crowd wanted to do.

The tea partiers are free to behave as they do because the very government they reject protects their right to do so.

Absent a credible leadership voice, however, they will remain on the fringe of American politics, perhaps powerful enough to disrupt some races but not strong enough to defeat the will of the majority of citizens who choose to live peacefully with legitimate governing structures and processes as the best protection against anarchy and its progeny, tyranny.

By Patricia McGuire  |  June 17, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Upstarts vs. veterans Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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You are incorrect about the tea party on many fronts. You might want to attend some to find out what they are about.

Meanwhile, individuals engaging in 'spontaneous order' within the bounds of the state are not 'anarchy'.

Posted by: sailingaway1 | June 17, 2010 7:13 PM
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