The Catholic Thing
Understanding the Tea Party Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 10 March 2010

What should Catholics think about the recent phenomenon known as the Tea Party? Its members and sympathizers are often characterized as racist, fanatical extremists bent on destroying the Obama presidency. But are they in fact? Recent evidence seems to point to the fact that they are mainstream Americans who view an ever-growing federal government as the biggest threat to the country’s future. In this, it might be argued, they instinctively practice what Pope Pius XI defined in his 1931 Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno as subsidiarity, “the fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.”

A little history will help us here. Listening to mainline media ranting against the Tea Party, one would think this was the first-ever populist uprising against elitist-driven government policies. In fact, populism took root in the early days of our republic.

In 1794, for example, western Pennsylvania settlers, unhappy with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s big government fiscal policies, vehemently opposed the federal excise tax on their only barterable product – whiskey. Mass protest meetings were held in scores of villages and hamlets and a few overzealous protesters burnt the home of a tax collector.

After negotiations broke down, President Washington sent 12,000 troops under Hamilton's command to quell the dissenters. There was no violence; the protesters peacefully disbanded and the only two who were tried and found guilty of treason were pardoned by Washington.

Even though the Whiskey Rebellion failed, it had an important impact on national politics: Westerners threw their support behind Thomas Jefferson in 1800 because his party’s platform opposed direct federal excise taxes.

Most nineteenth-century populists considered it a sacred mission to uphold Jeffersonian agrarian principles and to oppose Hamiltonian urban values. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out that the populist agenda was directed to “the survival of the pioneer, striving to adjust present conditions to his old ideals.”

Unfortunately, however, many populist movements, led by small town and rural Protestants, were also driven by anti-Catholic sentiments. These “plain folks” called for an “America for Americans” and directed much of their venom against Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European Catholic immigrants. The Anti-Masonic Party (1828), the nativist American Republican Party (1843), Know-Nothing Party (1849), American Protective Association (1887), and the People’s Party (1894), fearing the Catholic population’s growing ballot-box and economic power, attacked the major parties for courting papists.

Despite their biased agendas, populist movements, including recent ones, have had an impact on the fiscal, economic, and cultural policies of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The People’s Party (whose hero was William Jennings Bryan) promoted programs that became the basis of the New Deal and pushed Republicans to support nativist legislation that curtailed Catholic immigration from Europe. Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” populism moved President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s to take on “Economic Royalists.” George Wallace’s American Independence Party campaign against Washington “bureaucrats with briefcases” and “pointy-head pseudo-intellectuals” was co-opted by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Past populist achievements may explain the Left’s rush to destroy the Tea Party in its infancy and its vicious attacks on members as red-neck trailer trash.

A recent poll, commissioned by the National Review Institute and conducted by John McLaughlin and Associates, dispels the claim that the Tea Party is a backwoods fringe movement. Whatever else we might think of it, Catholics should understand it accurately. The poll reveals that Tea Party participants represent a cross section of America, including American Catholics. (In my next column, I will look specifically at what it discovered about the differences between church-going and nominal Catholics.)

Most surprising – 26 percent voted for Obama, 25 percent are registered Democrats, 36 percent are college graduates, 26 percent are urbanites, and 40 percent make over $60,000 annually.

The movement is not an angry-male thing: 50 percent are women. Religious affiliations also reflect America: 60 percent Protestant, 28 percent Catholic, 2 percent Jewish. Sixty-nine percent attend religious services regularly. On the abortion issue, 68 percent are pro-life, 26 percent pro-choice. Here are some of the other findings:

· 62 percent are Republican, 25 percent Democratic, 10 percent Independent
· 16 percent are liberal, 19 percent moderate, 64 percent conservative
· 26 percent are urban residents, 41 percent suburban, 29 percent rural
· 16 percent live in the East; 19 percent in the Midwest, 45 percent in the South, 21 percent in the West
· 81 percent are white; 16 percent non-white
· 36 percent are college grads, 16 percent have post-graduate degrees, 29 percent have some college, 16 percent are high school graduates
· 57 percent are over 55 years old, 26 percent are 41-55; 9 percent are 26- 40
· 33 percent approve of Obama’s job performance; 66 percent disapprove

This is not the profile of isolated extremists but of Americans from all walks of life who are educated and informed on the issues confronting their nation.

A vast majority of the Tea Party sympathizers support individual initiative and oppose government intervention, believe Washington Democrats are spending too much time pursuing their Big Government ideology, and think Congress has exceeded the Constitutional limits of its power. They also hold that the present financial crisis and recession were caused by reckless bank practices; by federal policies that promoted poor choices and irresponsible borrowing by people who could not afford to repay their mortgages. As for health care, 74 percent believe the Obama legislation will make health care worse for most Americans, 76 percent say it will increase healthcare costs, and 92 percent are concerned that it will increase the size of the federal deficit.

Finally, a whopping 87 percent of Tea Party folks are “very likely” to vote in the 2010 election for U.S. Congress. If that comes to pass, it will be a vote for subsidiarity and cause a major Richter Scale earthquake in Washington.


George J. Marlin is an editor of
The Quotable Fulton Sheen (Doubleday Image).

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Ruth, March 11, 2010
I am always surprised and disappointed that the U.S. bishops--with a few exceptions-- do not speak out against the health care bill as a violation of the principle of subsidiarity.
Elitist Infamy
written by Willie, March 11, 2010
Excellent and informative in these troubled times. It is time for an earthquake in D.C. I don't think all the tea parties in the country will convince the elitist government in power, of popular disapproval. You see, the elitist knows best and the populace are simple-minded rabble. Such is the mentality of tyranny. The only thing the present regime will understand is their removal from power.
Federal deficit
written by Robert C. Rice, March 11, 2010
Obama's oveerall fiscal irresponsibility is driving the federal deificit beyond the possibility of repayment. One effect will be the devaluation of the dollar and the consequent annulment of personal savings. Dependency on the federal trough is the goal, i.e., socialism. Socialism means the loss of economic and personal liberty. It means the end of America as we knew it.
written by Rich Quitliano, March 11, 2010
And yet, the geniuses in Washington still don't get it!
Wrong on Reagan
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 11, 2010
The assertion that Ronald Reagan coopted Wallace's campaign against Washington is without basis. Reagan needed no one to tell him what to think and had been crtical of the federal government for years. On another matter, Catholics should take note that the old nativist anti-papism has been been replaced by an even more virulent and insidious anti-Catholicism which clevery puts "good Catholics" (proaborts) in high positions. And Catholics helped to put them in office!
A Clarification
written by James Cathelineau, March 11, 2010
It's unfortunate that protesters against unwise and unjust advances of government power use a name associated with puerile protest against the just action of the British sovereign to try "to get the Americans to pay their fair share of the costs of throwing the French out of Canada and India in the Seven Years’ War," as Conrad Black reminds us. I would suggest that we Catholics might look to the first Catholic resistance to the modern totalitarian nation-state: namely, the rising of the Vendée.
written by jedesto, March 11, 2010
I usually endorse your posts. The title of your website bothers me, however, because it makes the mistake of implying Catholic identity with its own political bias. This is inappropriate, IMO.
Hamilton: No Red Ink
written by Dennis Bartlett, March 12, 2010
Hamilton rightly perceived that for the United States to survive, the federal government must have a role in finance and national security. I doubt if at the bar of history he successefully could be accused of being an advocte of big government. He realized that for the govenment to spend, it had to have revenue. He covered this in two ways (1) revenue from customs, and (2) tax on spirits (which he knew would be passed on to the consumers -- an egalitarian tax -- still alive today).
WhiskeyRebellion= Treason
written by Anthony, March 12, 2010
You do the Tea Party movement no favors when comparing it to the treasonous uprising of the Whiskey Rebellion. Luckily men like Hamilton and Washington had the courage to defend the fragile federal government and put down the insurrection for the good of our Republic. Hamilton and Washington stood for a kind of Republicanism that did not fall into the populist Jacobinism of the godless Jefferson.

History shows and continues to show that Catholicism and populism do not mix.
written by noah, October 28, 2010
I think the tea party is fabulous because once they break off of the republican party it will split republican votes in half

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