Three books on the Tea Party, reviewed by Steven Levingston

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Make no mistake: Tea party anger is shaking up the political landscape. You need look no further than the white-hot glow lingering in the sky over Delaware after the latest primary elections. But where did this siege mentality come from, why is it so fervent, how long will it last -- and the biggest question of all: Will the movement self-immolate, or will it keep spreading its scorched-earth rebellion? Here are three books that, lacking the benefit of hindsight, are banking on the luck of foresight.

1. "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America," by Kate Zernike (Times, $25)

What is this movement if not contradictory? asks Kate Zernike, a national correspondent for the New York Times. But contradictory is not necessarily pejorative; the movement embodies the contradictions that have energized Americans for more than 200 years. As Zernike points out, tea partiers often don't want to talk about their conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, preferring to keep the conversation focused on economic change. But, as we have seen, somehow those explosive issues keep rearing up. Tea partiers want a smaller government but are more dependent than ever on programs created and administered in Washington, as one adherent admitted: "I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security." Zernike doesn't see the tea party's issues going away -- big government is here to stay -- and she expects that its members will "always be a vocal opposition." But amassing enough power to legislate its agenda may be another matter altogether. The tea party's concerns are not new, Zernike writes, but "no one [has] ever been able to get a winning coalition behind them."

2. "The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History," by Jill Lepore (Princeton Univ., $19.95)

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore takes a jaundiced view of the tea party, calling it "a scattered, diffuse and confused movement" using "the echo of the Revolution" in pursuit of "a degree of legitimacy and the appearance, almost, of coherence." Even worse, in Lepore's estimation, is the tea partiers' disregard for history. Lepore elegantly blends the past and present to highlight the use and abuse of history by the movement's proponents: "Historical scholarship is taken for a conspiracy and the founding of the United States has become a religion." What she finds particularly galling is the tea partiers' oft-repeated revolutionary cry of taxation without representation, despite the election of a president on the highest voter turnout since 1968. "The citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation," she writes. Juxtaposing the real patriots of yore (Adams, Franklin, Paine) with the faux patriots of today (Beck, Hannity, Palin), Lepore concludes that "the Tea Party's version of American history bore almost no resemblance to the Revolution I study and teach." It is something worse -- it is "anti-history."

3. "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement Is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System," by Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen (Harper, $27.99)

Boldly, perhaps intemperately, Scott Rasmussen and Douglas Schoen assert that the tea party movement "is here to stay, and that represents a fundamental and generational transformation of American politics." They argue that fire-breathing rebels are driving a populist revolt that is "fundamentally different than what has come before it in size, scope, influence, and future impact." The authors, both pollsters, will either win plaudits in future years or be forgotten like many hyperbolic, wrong-headed forecasters through the eons. Yet they do win laurels for enthusiasm -- if only for repeating ad nauseum that the movement is "unprecedented," "irreversible," "underappreciated" and "misunderstood." It takes one back to Jeffrey Gayner's proclamation in a 1995 lecture for the Heritage Foundation: "Decades from now, historians quite likely will reflect back upon the Contract With America as one of the most significant developments in the political history of the United States." Sure.

-- Steven Levingston


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