By On Leadership
Sunday, July 4, 2010; G02
Donald F. Kettl is dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.
America's great revolutionaries of 1776 would probably think the same of today's tea partiers as they thought of each other. Some would adore them. Others would despise them. Some would simply be puzzled. We revere the founders now and hold up their Declaration of Independence as an enduring document of great ideas -- which it is -- and a ringing sign of their unity -- which it wasn't.
The process of writing, approving and signing the Declaration was a messy one. Even after the Continental Congress finally voted for independence, it took Jefferson weeks to write the document that declared it, Congress a week to agree on its wording and its members a month to reassemble to sign it. They were revolutionaries, to be sure. But they were a wildly different bunch, and barbs between the leaders were the stuff of legends. Adams and Franklin traded barbs for years, and the Jefferson-Hamilton feud spilled out to a New Jersey dueling field, where Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed the former Treasury secretary.
Two big lessons come from the founders' feuds. One is that, especially after Hamilton's death, they resolved that dueling with each other to resolve disputes wouldn't help the democracy they had worked so hard to create. Creating a system that could bend without ever breaking is one of their greatest contributions. The Civil War tested this principle as sorely as any idea could be tested, but in the end the founders' vision won out.
The other is that they came to realize, especially in the rough-and-tumble debate over the Declaration, that if they permitted all their own beliefs, no matter how treasured, to stand in the way of the nation's interest, all their ideals would disintegrate and they'd hand the country over to the British. Franklin, as usual, put it better than anyone: "We must hang together, gentlemen," he told his fellow members of Congress, "else, we shall most assuredly hang separately."
The tea partiers know how to rouse a good fight. They have learned how to pick off their opponents. They're framing the values they want to fight for. But have they learned yet how to hang together -- with each other and with the others we elect to run this country -- so we don't all hang separately?
Mickey Edwards, a former congressman, is vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he directs the institute's Rodel Fellowships in Public Leadership.
The revolution, at least until the outbreak of war, was largely decentralized; so is today's tea party movement. That is where the similarity ends. The founders had specific grievances and goals; the tea party, on the other hand, is made up of people with general grievances and uncertain goals. The founders rebelled against monarchy and demanded a government selected by the people; the tea party is a rebellion against government selected by the people.
The tea party is upset by the size of government; the founders were concerned not about the size of government but about its scope. The founders created a constitution -- rule of law -- that put limits on government leaders and on the power of the majority; many in the tea party seem to favor rule by majority. The tea party is focused on outcome; the founders were focused on process.
Kathryn Kolbert, a public-interest lawyer and journalist, is director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.
While I consider the many of tea party's members' views anachronistic, naive and out of touch with both the needs and views of most Americans, the Founding Fathers would be comfortable with some of their most discriminatory views.
Unfortunately, the founders lived in an age that permitted slavery, an age when women had no legal rights and could not vote, own property or sign contracts. Although the founders' constitutional framework for our nation was brilliant in most respects -- particularly their notion of separation of powers and explicit protection for individual liberties in the Bill of Rights -- the founders' vision was limited by its failure to include women and people of color in the protections afforded white, male property owners.
Thankfully, our nation's respect for and understanding of the meaning of equality have grown and changed and, with the addition of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, set forth a more inclusive set of constitutional protections. I wish the tea party's attitudes on issues of race and gender would similarly progress.
Col. Eric G. Kail is among four instructors and 13 cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who take on the weekly "On Leadership" questions.
The leaders of the American Revolution might very well consider the leaders of today's tea party confused attention-seekers. The tea party suffers an affliction of many social organizations; those who emerge as leaders cannot deliver the leadership required to further the cause of the group. As I compare what the tea party claims to stand for and what the tea party does, I see a lack of vision, direction and communication.
Our rebellious Founding Fathers were angry and fed up, but they provided leadership that galvanized a budding nation. Political and social momentum fueled by anger requires leadership capable of forbearance and clear communication, and I just don't see either from today's tea party.
Responsible leaders establish clear organizational goals and boundaries for the expected personal conduct of the members of their organizations. An examination of the tea party's goals reveals potential leaders competing for personal attention from the news media; aspiring tea party leaders seem very comfortable with camera time but not with the responsibility and accountability inherent to good leadership. Some seemingly good political ideas are lost in the tea party's cacophony of complaints and impotent leadership.
Sam Goodgame is a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy.
Today's tea party has no effective leaders; it has a brackish swirl of genuinely concerned citizens and fear-mongering instigators. Adams and Jefferson probably would have been as confused about the movement as most of us are today.
Until the tea party finds proper leadership, I don't think that its underlying virtues will be able to breathe.
The tea party needs someone to distill the healthy public frustration with government over-extensions from the sound bite-hungry culture that it has created. It needs someone willing to sacrifice the urge to exploit the basest of human sentiments at the expense of some free publicity. After all, an important component of leadership is the ability to see past daily sideshows for the sake of a higher goal.