The Mobilization of Founding Documents as a Reassertion of American Identity
The Declaration of Independence
One of the constituent features of the Tea Party and its satellite movements consists in a strict allegiance to the founding documents and the founding moments that defined the United States of America as a sovereign and independent people. After all, the Tea Party movement names itself after the Boston Tea Party, the original act of dissent against tyranny and the symbolic assertion of American independence. Most recently, also the GOP has unveiled its own document A Pledge to America: a manifesto bristling with the rhetoric found in the Declaration of Independence and with the passion of the Spirit of ’76. The founding documents are for the Tea Party (and like-minded conservatives) symbols which stand for limited government, individual rights, government by consent and economic freedom; and it is they, as a political movement, who claim to be the natural heirs to this political tradition. On the website teapartypatriots.com the mission statement asserts that:
“The Tea Party Patriots stand with our founders, as heirs to the republic, to claim our rights and duties which preserve their legacy and our own. We hold, as did the founders, that there exists an inherent benefit to our country when private property and prosperity are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual.”
Tea Party Protest, Hartford, Connecticut, 15 April 2009. Photo by Sage Ross
However, the reassertion and reinterpretation of the Founding Documents on behalf of the Tea Party is a symptom which betrays a far greater malaise: the perception of a loss of American identity. It is no coincidence that among the non negotiable core beliefs found on teaparty.org we find those of: “illegal aliens are here illegally, English as core language is required and traditional family values are encouraged.” The Tea Party therefore stands for the reassertion of traditional American identity against an expanding government which seeks to redistribute the hard-earned wealth of middling Americans, which favors immigrants over business and which institutes socialized health-care at the expense of the tax payer. America has thus strayed off the enlightened path set by its Founding Fathers; it has lost both its telos and its ontos: it is no more the “land of the free and home of the brave” and has thereby sacrificed its very liberty in the name of political correctness and equality. Only a reassertion of the Founding Documents will return America to its libertarian roots of self-determination, limited federal government, state-based governance and individual liberty.
We must however be critical of such a re-assertion of tradition and identity through the use of the Founding Documents. Are we sure that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence explicitly signify libertarian values? Could such documents point to alternative forms of government other than liberal democracy? And most importantly, does the Constitution truly represent the tenets of limited government and inalienable individual rights?
The Signing of the US Constitution
Between 1776 and 1787 the debate raging around the ratification of the Constitution pitted the Federalists (pro-Constitution) and the Antifederalists (against the Constitution) in a struggle that would eventually define what form the US government would take and what it would stand for. A close reading of the Federalist Papers and the Antifederalist Papers will actually reveal that the Federalists (many of whom eventually became Founding Fathers by framing the Constitution) were in many cases arguing against the conception of government which the Tea Party attributes to them today: a small, limited, isolationist government which believes in the inviolability individual rights and free enterprise. Moreover, the ratification of the US Constitution was not universally seen in the 1780s as the national institutionalization of liberty and freedom; rather, it came to represented taxation, a standing army and a powerful and unaccountable executive – all issues which were fought against in the Revolution (Cornell 1999 p.53). The idea of a federal Constitution was repudiated by almost half of the American population, and was eventually ratified on very narrow margins (Kramnick, 1987). On the other hand, the Antifederalists, whom championed the Articles of Confederation, argued for a more localist politics and against a federal government capable of coercively levying taxes on the fruit of the sovereign state’s labor (Cornell 1999, p.95).
I wish to explore three points here. Firstly, that the Tea Party is re-interpreting the Founding Documents (especially the Constitution) in a way which is not universally correct. By basing the legitimacy of their claim on a very specific interpretation of what the Constitution represents they are justifying the project of re-asserting a particular form of American identity which is not totalizing. Such a conceptualization would impose a negative interpretation of liberty thereby restricting any rights claims other than those on the libertarian agenda, and view as illegitimate any attempt of wealth redistribution or collective citizen action.
My second point consists in demonstrating that the Tea Party is not in fact the natural heir to the Founding Fathers as they resemble more (in many, but not all, aspects) the Antifederalists. However, if we look even deeper within the ideology of the Antifederalists we will discover a conceptualization of society which favored collective action, redistribution and which championed an egalitarian and leveling democracy – ideas which are not consonant with Tea Party ideology.
This leads me to my third point. As the Tea Party is caught between two very different political heritages (Federalist/Antifederalist) it cannot claim to represent any definitive embodiment of American Identity. Therefore the wielding of the Founding Documents as the weapons with which to “Restore Honor” (as Glenn Beck puts it) corresponds to a re-inscribing of what in semiotics is called a floating signifier. There is no historical legitimacy to the Tea Party: it is a popular movement which, like all others, tries to redefine the “We the people” through the mobilization of national symbols and other floating signifiers. As the Constitution has, under the liberal hegemony, become what Lacan calls a point de capiton (a symbol which manages to precariously anchor meaning into itself), the mobilization of this very symbol by the Tea Party betrays the instability of the liberal hegemony itself.
It therefore becomes clear that the Tea Party’s irreducible ideological contradictions are not merely a confused attempt to reinforce the supposedly founding principles of laissez faire capitalism and negative liberty against the encroachment of cultural relativism and redistribution imposed by the “progressive liberal elite”. Rather, it emerges as an angry backlash against those very principles which they claim to support. In other words the Tea Party, as the popular movement which defends liberalism, is in truth a movement which is angry at the shortcomings of liberalism itself.
What the Tea Party is demonstrating to the world is that the neo-liberal hegemony is no longer able to support and provide a coherent cultural, social, political and economic framework which successfully reflects the people’s life experiences. The disruptive and destructive forces that globalized neo-liberalism has unleashed on the American middle class – the lowering of wages, outsourcing of jobs to third world countries, financial bubbles, higher health care costs, immigration, recession, etc… – have prompted the formation of a movement which has paradoxically become its most ardent supporter.
The Federalists and the Tea Party
It is interesting to see the diverging interpretations of what the Constitution represented at the time of its ratification and what it represents today. For the Tea Party, as we have mentioned, the Constitution embodies the principles of economic freedom, individual liberty and limited government. Along with the Bill of Rights it is the document which protects the individual from coercive taxation and any unlawful encroachment of federal power upon the private sphere. For an organization such as Let Freedom Ring, a constitutional government is one which promotes “the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution and limited (federal) government”. Citing the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution has become for the Tea Party a symbol of resistance against the influence of the centralized federal government over the sovereignty of individual states: “we support states’ rights for those powers not expressly stated in the Constitution. As the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, in all other matters we support the personal liberty of the individual, within the rule of law.” Not only are politics to return closer to the States, but also closer to the citizen, as promoted by the initiative Contract FROM America which attempts to force Washington’s unaccountable politicians closer to their constituencies. Finally, any attempt to presently interpret the constitution must be coherent with the original intent of the Founding Fathers – a movement termed originalist constitutionalism (Liptak 2010) which “believe[s] that it is possible to know the original intent of the government our founders set forth, and stand in support of that intent.”
But what was the original intent of the founders? And what did the Constitution represent to Americans in the 1780s? The socio-political panorama following the Declaration of Independence presented a loosely united confederation of independent and sovereign states which had the freedom to coin their own money, levy their own taxes and draft their own laws (Wood 1972, p354). They truly lived under libertarian principles and practiced a much more participatory model of democracy than that which exists today (Wood 1999). America under the Articles of Confederation was a place where politics occurred on a local level, where representatives mirrored their constituency and where the “politics of liberty” reigned supreme (Kramnick 1987). It was a place which any Tea Partier could call home. Contrarily, Madison, Hamilton and Jay argued, in the Federalist Papers, for a new type of government where power was to be taken away from the states, farther removed from the locality, and placed in the hands of distant representatives who would take economic, military, judiciary, and legislative decisions on a national level far away from the will of the people (Kramnick 1987).
In the Federalist Papers, Hamilton seems often to argue against a conception of limited government. For Hamilton, America needed to become a nation-state able to compete internationally with the other European nation states of the time, and the federal government therefore required more power: the coercive power to legislate, direct commerce and wage war. Hamilton’s theory of state building is here not purely Lockean, but rather more Hobbesian and Machiavellian. In Federalist nos. 15, 16 and 17 Hamilton argues against state-based legislatures, equating them to bickering medieval feudal fiefdoms. Also Madison, as Isaac Kramnick points out, despised the “spirit of locality” fostered by state-centered politics, which advocated popular and parochial concerns (Kramnick, 1987). The new union of states was to have a standing army and a strong, decisive executive: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government…The ingredients which constitute energy in the executive are unity; duration; and adequate provision for its support; and competent powers.”(Hamilton 1788, p402) In Federalist no. 72, Hamilton goes in so far as to argue for the President’s right to indefinite election.
Another point of view which seeks to dispel the notion that the Framers were not complete laissez faire capitalists is presented by Gordon S. Wood, whom points out that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by notions of civic humanism and classical republicanism than by Lockean liberalism. When the US population truly turned to commerce and completely embraced “free market logic” around the first two decades of the 1800s, Wood suggests that the remaining Founding Fathers, and particularly Jefferson, were appalled at the type of nation they had created: one which had given up virtue, secularism and civic morals for “speculation, banks, paper money and evangelical Christianity.”(Wood 1988)
Tea Party Protest
We are therefore presented with studies by authoritative historians which point out that the Founding Fathers were not in fact what the Tea Party makes them out to be today. For many Americans in the 1780s the Constitution represented exactly the opposite of what the tea party makes it out to be now. It was written by men who still believed in the “public good”, who still had not completely embraced the idea of America as a capitalist Mecca, whom believed in executive decisions and which actually made provisions for curbing the liberty that characterized America under the Articles of Confederation.
The Antifederalists and the Tea Party
A brief look into Antifederalist political philosophy will reveal striking similarities with that of the Tea Party. Amongst the main issues the Tea Party is concerned about are the erosion of American traditional values and the destructive forces immigration has on American culture. Tea Party supporters seem to be fighting for small, independent communities of hard-working (Christian) men and women: communities where the family represents the nucleus of social organization, and a place where interests, wealth and culture are relatively homogenous. The Tea Party nation is that of the common man, and, as Sarah Palin stated at the Tea Party National Convention:
“The soul of this movement is the people—everyday Americans who grow our food and run our small businesses, and teach our kids, and fight our wars. They’re folks in small towns and cities across this great nation who saw what was happening, and they saw, and they were concerned, and they got involved.”
Similarly, the Antifederalists also championed a view of a local, homogenous community. Montesquieu had taught that republics could survive only in relatively small constituencies where wealth, ideas, ethnicity, religion and political views were similar (Cornell 1999, p86). Difference and factiousness were therefore destabilizing forces for such communities (as is immigration for the Tea Party today). The America of post 1776 was a country with a strong middle class constituted of farmers, mechanics, artisans, and small merchants, who were not yet integrated into a massive commercial system, but were tied to their locality, and therefore looked with suspicion on the plans of the elitist Federalists of instituting a federal government that could encroach on their freedom of enterprise(Wood 1972, p.46-47).
The same distrust for the intellectual elite was present in the Antifederalist camp as in the Tea Party today. The “out of touch” progressive elite of Washington and Hollywood that the Tea Party denounces today were the Federalists of the 1780s. Kramnick quotes an Antifederalist as stating that the Constitution wished to “raise the fortunes and respectability of the well born few, and oppress the plebeian” it was “a continental exertion of the well-born of America to obtain that darling domination which they have not yet been able to accomplish in their respective states” and would “lead to an aristocratical government and establish tyranny over us.” (cited in Kramnick 1987) This critique bears striking resemblance to a passage from the GOP’s recent Pledge to America: “An arrogant and out-of-touch government of self-appointed elites makes decisions, issues mandates, and enacts laws without accepting or requesting the input of the many.”
Yet, at the same time, the Tea Party cannot claim to be direct heirs of the Antifederalists either. Popular Antifederalism believed in participatory democracy, civic virtue and radical egalitarianism. They were indeed very far from any conception of Lockean liberalism as championed by the Tea Party. They were so radical that they hardly even believed in the notion of separation of powers. For an Antifederalist who wrote under the pseudonym of Centinel, unicameralism was to be the only legitimate form of government, as the most important check on power was not another branch of government, but the people themselves (Cornell 1999, p106). Plebian Antifederalism rejected the notion of representation altogether: it was the people who, through the sole legitimate institution of the plebiscite, would take decisions. As Kramnick demonstates “preferable for many Antifederalists was that there be no representatives, that, as Rousseau had envisioned, the people simply gather in public assembly and give themselves laws.”(Kramnick, 1987) Radical Antifederalist politics believed in crowd action, where the “common good” had the right, through the use of militias and mobs, to overrule both personal rights and private property (Cornell 1999, p114). Wood calls these movements the “People out of Doors”, people who felt so alienated by the landed gentry that they took matters into their own hands. Such popular movements eventually erupted in instances of violent dissent and calculated property destruction such as the Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 (Wood 1972, p325).
Founding Symbols as Floating Signifiers
What the Tea Party’s re-assertion of the Founding Heritage amounts to is an attempt to give meaning to what America is, it is trying to answer the age old question of, as Samuel Huntington put it, “who are we?”. It does so through the investing of meaning into the symbol of the Constitution. Therefore, in Sausserian terms, here the signifiers are Founding symbols, while the signifieds are Lockean Liberalism, laissez faire capitalism and other Libertarian values. According to Jacques Lacan, however, the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is never direct and explicit. As we have seen in our historical analysis the Constitution meant different things at different times and to different people. For Lacan, signifiers “slip” – it is impossible for them to “fix” meaning in a totalizing and universal way – therefore they continuously refer to another signifier in an ever ending chain of signification. However, Lacan admits the existence of what he calls points de capiton or nodal points: anchoring points which allows for “moments of stable signification.”(Homer 2005, p42)
The Founding symbols are here slipping or floating signifiers, which, at certain moments in American history, have become points de capiton: genuinely representing, legitimizing and justifying the dominant ideology, political framework and economic base. The contemporary instance of stable signification is what has come to be known as the liberal capitalist democracy: a particular regime justified by the enlightenment (and hence documents such as the Constitution) and which today has become hegemonic.However, this “stable moment of signification” is presently coming to an end. It simply does not provide enough meaning to legitimize precarious economies, terrorism, world-wide secessionist movements, environmental disasters, endless wars, democratic deficits and the climate crisis.
The theory of Ernesto Laclau here is key in analyzing the Tea party as a popular movment. Laclau’s notion of radical investment, informed by Lacan’s understanding of objet petit a, demonstrates how one particular political demand can come to represent the whole. In this case, the Tea Party is attempting to redefine the whole of American identity based on a minority’s identity (theirs): “From our founding, the Tea Party is the voice of the true owners of the United States, WE THE PEOPLE.” Laclau demonstrates how the constitution of the “We the People” is an explicitly political project. For him: “radical investment means making an object the embodiment of a mythical fullness.” (Laclau 2005, p115) Through the radical investment of the Founding Symbols, the Tea Party attempts to claim as theirs the very mythical founding of the US republic.
What Laclau offers us therefore is the multiplication of a plurality of new points of resistance and alternatives to the status quo. Once we have understood that any conception of “We the People” is in truth not a universal and mythical aggregation of the wills, passions, backgrounds and inclinations of the population, but is an explicit political endeavor, the possibility for the claiming of that very same heritage is open to all. The Founding Fathers radically invested the basis of what was to be the federal government with a particular and narrow understanding which was not shared by the totality of the American people. The Tea Party attempts to do the same today with those same symbols. The work of Laclau and Mouffe liberate those symbols by demonstrating that they are political constructs, at which point they become available for use by potentially any political group. For example, Glenn Beck in his recent “Restoring Honor” rally held under the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. attempted to claim the narrative of slave liberation as part of the Tea Party’s heritage.
“What has been exploded is the idea and the reality itself of a unique space of constitution of the political.” (Laclau & Mouffe 1985, p181)
Politics can therefore be constituted within the very texts, signs and symbols which we use to give meaning to it:
“There is no meaning which is not over determined from its very inception.” (Laclau 2005, p115)
This, then, must be the building block of the new project of the left. At a moment in history where traditional narratives cease to “fix meaning”, when the liberal hegemony is wavering, here is the moment to reclaim that tradition and continue the democratic revolution that was “fixed” by the ratification of the constitution and by the supporters of a negative conception of liberty. The true heirs to the Constitution are therefore not (only) the Tea Party; rather, the liberated slaves, the emancipated women, gay and lesbians with rights, workers with a right to work in safe conditions and with a decent wage, children with the right to free and public education. These are the people who perpetuated and fought for the original legacy of the Founding Fathers: for the Constitution might embody individual rights, but it also represents the right of collective emancipation.
- Cornell, Saul. The Other Founders : Anti-Federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828. Virginia : University of North Carolina Press, 1999
- Homer, Sean. Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jacques Lacan. Oxon, UK: Routledge. 2005
- Laclau, Ernesto & Mouffe, Chantal. Hegemony & socialist strategy : towards a radical democratic politics. London : Verso, 1985
- Laclau, Ernesto. On Populist Reason. London: Verso, 2005
- Levy, Leonard. W. Origins of the Bill of Rights. London : Yale University Press, 1999
- Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times
- Madison, James; Hamilton, Alexander; Jay, John; edited by Kramnick, Isaac. The Federalist Papers. London : Penguin, 1987
- Wood, Gordon S. 1988 “The Significance of the Early Republic” Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 1-20
- Wood, Gordon S. 1999 “Was America Born Capitalist?” The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 36-46
- Wood, Gordon. S. The creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. New York : Norton, 1972
 Kramnick, Isaac 1987 in Editor’s Introduction to the Federalist Papers
 Palin, Sarah http://themoderatevoice.com/62060/sarah-palins-keynote-speech-at-national-tea-party-convention/