No, The Tea Party is Not the Confederacy

On the eve of the 2012 presidential election Andrew Sullivan offered the following analysis:

If Virginia and Florida go back to the Republicans, it’s the Confederacy entirely.  You put the map of the Civil War over this electoral map, you’ve got the Civil War.

And in August Jesse Jackson suggested that, “The tea party is the resurrection of the Confederacy… It’s the Fort Sumter Tea Party.”  Something happens to folks on the Left when they attempt to place a current political crisis involving the issue of race and the proper scope of the federal government in historical context. In recent days, such commentary from the Left has taken this meme that connects claims of political, moral and ideological dysfunction among the opposition to the Confederacy to the height of absurdity. Consider Colbert King’s recent Washington Post editorial.

Today there is a New Confederacy, an insurgent political force that has captured the Republican Party and is taking up where the Old Confederacy left off in its efforts to bring down the federal government….

The New Confederacy, as churlish toward President Obama as the Old Confederacy was to Lincoln, has accomplished what its predecessor could not: It has shut down the federal government, and without even firing a weapon or taking 620,000 lives, as did the Old Confederacy’s instigated Civil War.

Secession and the formation of the Confederacy took place only after the Democratic Party split along regional lines in 1860 and over a specific issue that had been festering for decades. There is nothing comparable taking place in the Republican Party at this moment. What is truly absurd, however, is King’s suggestion that what the Tea Party fringe has accomplished is somehow worse than breaking up the Union. Perhaps someone should remind him that eleven states managed to shut the federal government down within their own borders for four years.

Even more bizarre is a piece by Steven Rosenfeld that was picked up this past week by Salon.

The most apt historical precedent for today’s marauder Republicans is the old Confederacy, where the provocateurs are not merely intent on stopping federal governance, but withdrawing from it or sabotaging it if they can’t get their way. Today’s Tea Party darlings like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the House right-wingers driving the federal shutdown are cut from the same disunionist cloth as the old Southerners who fomented secession and the Civil War…. Fox News is the disunionists’ Charleston Mercury, egging on the rebels, and seeking to convey legitimacy to their crusade to save government not by fixing things, but by blowing it up piece-by-piece.

There is a difference between taking an extreme position on the limits of government power and calling for disunion. No one is calling for the latter. Let me know when they do. Look, I am just as upset about this shutdown as the next person and I have nothing but contempt for the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, but let’s not place them in the same room with Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.

Such comparisons may help to lower your blood pressure, but they fail to shed much light on the past or the present. They will, however, make for some interesting reading in my Civil War Memory class.

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35 comments… add one

  • I do not see it as a disunionist type of movement, but one of seeking a limit centralized government as they perceived the founders meaning the Constitution. I guess you can label it any way you want depending upon whether you want to create controversy or work to be a peacemaker. Personally, I would rather see what Senator Cruz is after. I cannot totally agree with Tea Partiers but perhaps I tend to be a bit more libertarian. It is getting to the point I do not trust the US government.

    Sam Vanderburg
    Loving it here in Texas

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013

      I hope that readers will share their thoughts about the focus of the post and not use it to lay out their political positions. There are plenty of other places to do so and personally I don’t really care.

  • M.D. Blough Oct 5, 2013

    There’s a coincidental overlap. In some states, it may well be some of the same factors that produced secessionism 150+ years ago, but there are other states in which the Tea Party is popular that played no role in the Civil War or were actually on the Union side, such as Kansas. It’s a facile comparison, IMHO, that doesn’t do much towards understanding what’s happening or, in particular, how the leaders of the extreme right can get so much support from people who are actually being harmed by their tactics (whites on mid to lower range of middle class and poorer than that).

  • Ed Darrell Oct 5, 2013

    Killing the federal government is close enough to disunion for my purposes.

    No, it’s not exactly like the old Confederacy. The love of heritage, honor, family, and understanding that working government is necessary, all are absent in the modern Tea Party.

    Fortunately history is not exactly repeating itself. Unfortunately, many of the uglier parts are being repeated.

    Tea Party is a lot more Patrick Henry than Jefferson Davis, and that may be more problematic. Davis understood the need for the South to stick together; not sure Henry would have agreed.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013

      OK, but does what you mean by “my purposes” have anything to do with sound historical comparisons? That is what I question.

      Fortunately history is not exactly repeating itself. Unfortunately, many of the uglier parts are being repeated.

      Seems to me that the “uglier parts” you reference could connect with any number of historical moments.

      • Ed Darrell Oct 5, 2013

        “My purposes?” A stir to action, perhaps along the lines of what the poet intended with the 1860 writing of “The Ride of Paul Revere.” I hear the alarms, and I cannot figure why others do not respond.

        It’s not a perfect historical comparison, and we need to be alert to the imperfections. I still hear the hoofbeats, and the call to alert.

        I have high hopes.

        For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
        Through all our history, to the last,
        In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
        The people will waken and listen to hear
        The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
        And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

        Too few heard them in 1860 as Longfellow did. Let us not repeat that history, either.

  • Judkin Oct 5, 2013

    Hey Kevin, as a Civil War historian, I’ve often considered the secession comparison, but find it lacking. I’ve mused that many of the Republicans seems to be channeling their inner John C. Calhoun, constantly threatening catastrophic consequences if they don’t get their way. But I’m not even sure that is an accurate analogy to what’s happening now. Perhaps the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is more accurate–with Republicans imagining themselves (ironically) in the role of the JFK administration, and viewing Democrats in the role of the Russians and Obamacare as the equivalent of nuclear missiles on their way to Cuba. Republicans think that the Democrats (nee Russians) will blink first and cave on Obamacare. The looming debt default, of course, being the nuclear fallout that results from neither side blinking. SInce no analogy is perfect, this one too has flaws, but it is suitably frightening…

  • London John Oct 5, 2013

    Aren’t those who claim to see a new Confederacy implicitly endorsing the Lost Cause propaganda that the Civil War was about States’ rights not slavery?

    • Msb Oct 5, 2013

      No, they’re arguing that racism and white supremacy are central to both.

  • Christopher Graham Oct 5, 2013

    As I sit down to read George Marsden’s _Fundamentalism and American Culture_ I do see historical similarities with any number of conservative movements. You might think of the Old Republicans of Nat Macon’s day, or the Confederacy, or perhaps more relevantly, the fundamentalist anti-modernizers of the 1910s, or the racial revanchists of the 1960s… Generally, in all cases, a minority considers the wider changes in the world to be a threat to cherished statuses and values. (See for instance this extremely depressing–and I suspect somewhat misleading–report http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/10/04/why-theyll-die-on-this-hill/)

    But the characterization of conservative elements fighting to keep things as they were doesn’t exactly work because those conservative elements almost always adapt very well to the environments they are struggling against. The Confederacy, for instance, had a capitalist/progressive vision wrapped up in their anti-liberal cause (thinking Walter Johnson and John Majewski here.) The fundamentalists of the 1910s and 1920s deftly took to radio and film to advance their cause. Hell, Billy Sunday was their chief spokesman (if not chief theologian) and you can hardly consider him a crusty revanchist.

    Two points here. First, comparison with past historical circumstance are of limited usefulness. That is, if you are trying to find points of congruence between group A and group CSA, you might find some, but of limited meaning.

    Second, historical lessons ARE useful in helping understand these movements and how they unfold. For instance, it is common to characterize these types of conservatives as completely rejecting change. Yet they prove adept at adapting to change, even if sometimes unwittingly. Also, despite comforting (to the liberal) assurances that this is the last gasp of a dying subculture that will eventually go away…. it never happens.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      But the one element of their environment that the architects of secession/Confederacy never adjusted to was their fear of losing slavery. No one in Congress from the Tea Party is calling for disunion. I suspect that the issues the Tea Party will go down fighting will within a few years seem as moderate as Social Security and Medicaid now appear to most mainstream Republicans.

      I agree with you re: the usefulness of making connections between conservative movements throughout US History. Of course, the writers referenced in the post are relying more on dramatics than anything approaching a thoughtful comparison.

  • Msb Oct 5, 2013

    You can call Jackson a leftist, but Sullivan is a conservative, so this is not strictly a leftist meme.
    I don’t see a complete overlap, but some worrying similarities.
    1. We’re in this mess because the Republicans are splitting between a far-right and a truly radical faction whose aim may prove to be to destroy the government (tea partiers who are nearly invulnerable to being voted out in many cases owing to gerrymandering). Boehner will not bring a clean CR to the floor because he knows the TPs won’t vote for it. This looks to me a bit like both the fire-eaters’ complete control of Southern politics and the failed dem convention in 1859.
    2. The fact that R’s are threatening to let the country default if they don’t get their way, reminds me of Lincoln’s predictions before he took office. The same kind of blackmail.”the tug must come,” I fear.
    3. Racism and white supremacy are potent elements. Ta-nehisi Coates has noted that the Confederate states are those that have refused fed funds to expand Medicaid, thus depriving the people who need the services most. Coates doesn’t think the fact that most of these people are black is an accident.(me either) and we don’t need to look far to find R’s who reject the legitimacy of a black Democratic president.

    So you’re right about the fit being imperfect. But as we have a faction in the House that is paralyzing government and whose notion of “compromise” is “you do what I want or the economy gets it”, the resemblance is far closer than I would like.

  • Lyle Smith Oct 5, 2013

    Yep, it’s anti-intellectual to opine that the Tea Party is the Confederacy or that the South today is the Confederacy still.

  • Forester Oct 5, 2013

    Interesting analysis. A lot of Teabaggers have Neo-Confederate sympathies and would gladly accept the comparison (Tea Party=Confederacy) as fact. I’ve heard a lot of people clamoring for secession online using this comparison. I just didn’t know that the Left was saying something similar, from the opposite viewpoint.

  • Crandall Marsh Oct 5, 2013

    “There is a difference between taking an extreme position on the limits of government power and calling for disunion. No one is calling for the latter. Let me know when they do. ”

    There have been numerous petitions to secede from the union by Tea party activists. (23 at last count) Recently conservative activists in one Colorado county have attempted to place on the ballot a resolution to secede from the state! Even if we ignore the constant Tea Party refrain for armed “rebellion” and most recently for a “military coup,” How could you not characterize these petitions and resolutions as calls for disunion?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013

      Thanks for the comment. I meant to say that no one is Congress is calling for secession. Online petitions enhance our democratic culture in innumerable ways, but that doesn’t mean that I have to worry that the sky is about to fall on us.

      • Charles Lovejoy Oct 5, 2013

        Kevin,I hadn’t seen any in Congress calling for or arguing secession of their state either. What I am seeing in this current hurly-burly is an attempt to de-rail the Affordable Care Act.That’s not related to secession. Many in the GOP seem to think keeping 50 million Americans without health insurance and with limited access to healthcare it will make healthcare better for those that have health insurance? I guess that what they think? By tossing terms like the ‘Confederacy’ out it takes away for what really are the modern day issues. IMEHO

  • Charles Lovejoy Oct 5, 2013

    Being on the other end of the political spectrum than the GOP and Tea Party I still read and keep up with what the GOP and conservatives are saying. I make my disagreement with the GOP and Tea Party a disagreement from an informed position.Having informed reasons as to why I don’t support the Tea Party or most GOP positions. I’m not seeing anything productive in comparing the modern day Tea Party to the Confederacy by those on the left. 2013 is a very different world from 1860 when the Confederacy was formed after secession. But I will admit Cruz reminds me a little of the ‘Fire-eaters’ in his tactics. Most of the Tea parties I know and have talked to seem to be obsessed with cutting taxes and eliminating many government programs( programs that only affect other people and not them) :-) What I get out of the Tea-baggers is they want government downsized leading to less taxes, not leave the Union as did the secessionist did in 1860. Several Tea-Baggers I know are very pro American and would never support Neo-Confederates. In fact most of the people I know that claim Tea Party loyalties are in Ohio and Western NY state. They don’t like Neo-Confederates or any thing connected to the Confederacy.

  • Ben Allen Oct 5, 2013

    I’d say a better historical analogy for the Tea Party Republicans would be the Copperheads.

  • Forester Oct 5, 2013

    Do you think there is an element of “role play” involved here? Some people seem to wish that they lived in a dramatic, romanticized period like the Civil War, so they choose to see modern events as a parallel and/or continuation of that era. The very name “Tea Party” references the Revolution, as though fighting Obama is a way to live their fantasy of fighting in the Revolution.

    For that matter, the Civil Rights Movement is frequently co-opted by the left, as is the Occupy movement which shows a lot of Hippie/Vietnam Era nostalgia.

    I think some people may be approaching politics as a form of Reenactment or RPG.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2013

      Now that’s an interesting thought.

  • Here in Texas it is quite common to see a mix of Tea Party bumper stickers with “SECEDE,” “LONE STAR REPUBLIC,” and “Come and Take It” (a reference to a Texas Revolution flag, not dissimilar to the Dont Tread On Me flags popular with the Tea Party.) Additionally, Rick Perry has made references to Texas secession, airing the bogus ahistorical claim that Texas possesses the unique right to secede whenever it wants. So, if you want Tea Party activists and the office holders they support who have openly called for disunion, look no further than the most relevant state in US conservatism, Texas.

  • Brendan Bossard Oct 6, 2013

    Several points:

    (1) Please don’t call Tea Partiers “Tea Baggers.” That has a certain double-entendre that is unhelpful at best and polarizing at worst in political dialogue;
    (2) Compromise is a two-way street. Lincoln was willing to make compromises even regarding the methodology by which the evil of slavery is eliminated, which made the Confederate secession particularly unreasonable. Obama has clearly stated that he will not compromise at all about anything in the healthcare legislation–take it or leave it. This puts those who oppose even just parts of the legislation in the awkward position of having to stand on principle or abandon it without hope of compromise. This is much different than 1860, and Sen. Cruz, the “leader” of the extremists, is not even considering secession as an option. The Confederate Fire-Eaters talked frequently and openly about it.
    (3) Any talk about secession a la Gov. Perry seems to be associated more with regional affiliation than ideology. As a resident of Pennsylvania, I know more than 100 Tea-Party types, none of whom have ever mentioned secession in any context.

    • Patrick Young Oct 7, 2013

      Brendan, just as a matter of historical clarification, I recall the nascent Tea Party calling for conservatives to “Tea Bag Obama”, an obvious reference to sexual aggression. I had been involved in Boston Tea Party-themed political events before the Tea Party ever existed and no one ever said “We’ll tea bag them.” I think this was a term selected by the fringe right that they later regretted choosing.

      • Brendan Bossard Oct 9, 2013

        Thank you very much for your clarification, Patrick. I was not aware of it. I have observed that otherwise mature people can become remarkably infantile when discussing political matters, though, and the discussion only degrades when their opponents swallow the bait. So let us excuse neither the baiting nor the swallowing!

        I have read many of your posts, and respect you for your reasonableness and candor. Cheers!

  • Edwin Thompson Oct 6, 2013

    You’re correct – but I had to read the complete essay before I understood your point. You said “I have nothing but contempt for the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, but let’s not place them in the same room with Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.”

    There is no comparison between Americas war in 1860 to end slavery’s expansion and ultimately slavery, verses a bunch of crazed 21st century hooligans who want to eliminate the Affordable Health Care Act.

  • “I am the first one to admit that I don’t have any evidence for it, but I tend to believe that a large number of these calls for secession are just people blowing off steam.” I’m a little teapot, short and stout!

    I do not see the similarities about the copperheads. They evade me other than being political dissidents.

    Being in rural Texas, I can say that it really is conservative which matches my line of thinking. Attention needs to be paid to the Tea Party because they have some serious concerns. Success at secession is only the whistle of a teapot, but Texas is very proud to be a part of the USA. Comparisons with Confederacy seem to be just far reaching to those less scholastically inclined. But it does make for lively subject matter!

  • Jerry McKenzie Oct 7, 2013

    My paternal line has been Republican since the Civil War as was my maternal grandfather’s line, but I am no longer a Republican has it has been coopted by a ultra-religious, white-is-right, pro-wealth and pro-corporate Kooks. That the South is now a Republican stronghold is laughable historically. There is no place in the party anymore for moderate or empathetic people. From Kook-central, Phoenix, Arizona.

    • Hey – I resemble that remark! But my family has been Democrat since the Civil War, although my mother and father both stood against devaluing human life at any point of life.

      I cannot say I am really bothered by the name calling, though. It certainly does not add anything to your argument, however, Jerry. Some of us see it one way and some another. We can agree to disagree if we cannot come to common ground on some issues, but surely we have some common ground. We both enjoy this website even from different sides of an issue. That is a good start.

      Sam Vanderburg
      A Texan by choice

  • Eric A. Jacobson Oct 7, 2013

    Thanks Kevin. As a conservative, I grow weary of being accused of being a Confederate. :)

  • Don Capps Oct 9, 2013

    That the Tea Party and its Republican Party auxillary (note the sequence) happens to have its locus in those states once part of the Confederacy is either completely coincidential or bespeaks of something else that, perhaps, brings Dr. Pettigru’s comment to mind as still being applicable, only to a larger area….

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