Historian Jill Lepore has turned her eye to the modern Tea Party movement:
Like many observers interested in the Tea Party — though unlike many Harvard historians — Lepore sat in on meetings; attended rallies, including Sarah Palin’s visit to Boston; observed how local elementary teachers taught the Revolution; and explored the historical tourism industry, especially the Boston Tea Party Ship, a replica currently sitting in Gloucester and in serious disrepair. What the Tea Party was marshaling, she found, wasn’t patriotic spirit, and it certainly wasn’t history. It was, in her term, “antihistory.”
Two things separate antihistory from its prefix-less sibling. First, and most obvious, antihistory gets stuff wrong...The second — and, for Lepore, more serious — problem with antihistory is that it hijacks history’s raw materials. It takes a messy tumble of personalities and events and quotations and molds them into a static picture, a picture that happens to line up with current policy goals...
...These twinned ideas, Lepore writes, add up to a form of “historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry.” And that’s what makes antihistory more troubling than a simple partisan interpretation of history, which is something we’ve been indulging in for a long time.
The Boston Globe article cited above also includes a rebuttal of Lepore's charge of antihistory by some of those Tea party supporters she interviewed for her book, including President Christian Varley of the Greater Boston Tea Party:
They aren’t claiming to be historians and say they shouldn’t be held to that standard: Their focus is on political change. When they deploy the Founding Fathers, Varley says, they do so because “it’s a tool we can use — personalizing the ideas about the way government should be. I admit it’s a little contrived, but it’s no different than campaigning for a candidate or marketing a movie star.”
I care deeply about history, and in particular that period in America's past that has been appropriated by the Tea Party for its particular use. Nonetheless I do believe in my populist heart that history should not be the sole province of historians, any more than poetry or art or science are only intended for academics and specialists with the training to divine meaning and wield whatever power comes with such knowledge. I am with e.e. cummings to the extent that
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
To every thing there is a season, and the political season is not one that lends itself to good history. With the Tea Party phenomenon, however, we are not just speaking only of over the top campaign materials and statements by candidates who display a disturbing lack of historical understanding. We are talking about strongly held conservative beliefs about change, and power, and the role of government reenforced by clever manipulation of powerful symbols and the imagined past.
Such views are not sympathetic to academic discourse. Decontructing the flimsy historical underpinings of Tea Party propaganda may be good fun for the historian - heaven knows it comes easily enough for me - but it is not where the real argument is taking place. It is the wrong tool for the job. The quill gets obliterated by tar and feathers.
When fringe candidates like Carl Paladino or Christine O'donnell (or Sarah Palin) ride a backlash to primary victories, they tend to wither in the harsh light of scrutiny when their fitness to lead comes into question. Even so, there are plenty of Tea party candidates on ballots across the country today with better qualifications than these, if not a better grasp of history. Conventional wisdom has many of these winning election to statewide and national office this year.
The real impact on today's elections comes not from soldiers in the Tea Party movement but the massive financial resources from outside groups unleased by the Citizen's United ruling which in this political season has disproportionately favored Republican candidates. It is that version of history which bombards the electorate. And it is coming from very well established - if undisclosed - sources.
This, too, is nothing new. The colonial press was filled with anonymous screeds. General Washington was vilified in an anonymous letter written by his enemies in Congress on the eve of Valley Forge. In fact, the Washington parallel is striking, when one considers that the Tea Party is at its heart a reaction to Obama and what he represents, much akin to the criticism of Washington's personality cult during the dark hours of the Revolution.
The American Revolution was a war of words as well as blood. The sound bytes of Samuel Adams and his influence over the waterfront mobs were incendiary in revolutionary Boston. Yet he remained a destructive rather than constructive politician, better at riling a hornet's nest than at beekeeping (or brewing, for that matter).
Congresman Sam Rayburn famously observed after a Democratic defeat in 1953; "[Republicans] are going to learn the difference between construction and obstruction... Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it took a carpenter to build it." Good carpenters, like good historians, are in short supply this year.