The just past elections showed that the most important instances of nonviolent activism in the last year here in the United States have been the organizing efforts of the various groups that together call themselves the Tea Party. Through rallies, speeches, voter turnout efforts, and the mobilization of various media outlets, the organizers of the movement changed the majority party in the House of Representatives in dramatic fashion, dealing a serious blow to President Obama’s remaining agenda and likely stifling any hope of passing immigration reform or a green energy bill in the next two years. Like all nonviolent movements, the Tea Partiers exercised power by organizing people, gathering in public spaces, talking and debating about how we ought to live together and then took action that changed the character of the world.
On the left and among most of those who study or advocate for nonviolence, the Tea Party is not understood to be a “real” nonviolent movement. First, the Tea Party is in part a creation of Fox News and the so-called grassroots organizations that have done much of the organizing are in fact Astroturf organizations funded by corporations, wealthy individuals or Republican Party operatives. Second, much of what seems to be motivating Tea Party activists, both from a policy standpoint and as indicated by the character of their rhetoric, seems inconsistent with social justice and, in some cases, promotes violence. Some Tea Party activists are pro-gun, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-union, anti-Muslim and/or racist. Indeed, more broadly, we might say that the likely effects of the Tea Party movement is a further acceleration of a decades long trend toward redistributing wealth away from poor and working class people and toward the wealthy. First up on the agenda in this regard is their desire to extend the Bush tax cuts in their entirety. If we understand economic oppression as a form of violence, then clearly the goals of the Tea Party movement are not so non-violent after all.
However, discounting the Tea Party out of hand amounts to a missed opportunity and short-sighted understanding of how power and nonviolence works. If you listen closely to the rhetoric of Tea Party activists, elements – and I stress elements – of what they say resonates in important ways with core principles of nonviolence. They emphasize self-sufficiency, local control over resources, and skepticism about centralized government. They rail against bailouts for Wall Street, large corporations and corruption. Some Tea Party activists have a libertarian streak that leads them to be skeptical of the United States’s interventionist foreign policy and the our current wars in particular, for both moral and financial reasons. Some have been critical of the Patriot Act and warrantless searches. But as important as whether or not the goals of the Tea Party and progressives line up, nonviolent methods, in and of themselves, have meaning.
Principled advocates of nonviolence argue that it is not just a means for achieving a goal, but that it’s concerned with the character of our methods – what processes, what kinds of speeches, what kinds of actions – we use to achieve goals together. The question of whether or not Tea Party activists are “real” nonviolent activists or not is a version of a question that is as old as theories of democracies: What is the difference between democracy and mob rule? The will of the people can be irrational, violent and xenophobic and can mean the exploitation of the few. Yet the rule of the people is the only way to ensure that the few do not exploit the many and discussing and reasoning with others is preferable to relying on the decisions of a few individuals. How can we have the benefits of democracy without the dangers of it?
Some have asked where the Tea Party was when President Bush was running up historic national debt, shredding personal liberties and expanding the scope of the Federal government. However, I think if we look at the last few years through the lens of nonviolence, the appearance of people power that brought President Obama and the Democrats into power in 2008 must be related to the appearance of people power that just won such large gains for the Republicans. The notoriously lethargic and apathetic American people are stirring, and it is having all kinds of effects, both in terms of public policy and the character of our discourse.
If there is one thing that the left and right agree on it is that we are dissatisfied – so dissatisfied that people are taking to the streets, making phone calls, donating money and talking and arguing about politics in ways reminiscent of the tumultuous years of the late-1960’s and early-1970’s. We often hear that the country is polarized and to the extent that means we are no longer listening to each other or brought to a point of desiring to exclude or destroy one another, such polarization is damaging. But in another sense, American democracy has always depended upon the revitalizing power of citizens being brought into the public sphere by severe disagreements about fundamental issues.
The British climate movement’s ‘Big One’ brought out record numbers, but ran into a wall of silence. XR’s new strategy could turn this setback into a new lease on life.
Many are celebrating the recent convictions against the Proud Boys, but they will only strengthen the state’s ability to target the left.
A new book explores how Miss Major has persevered over six inspiring decades on the frontlines of the queer and trans liberation movement.
I’m not so sure about this claim. Normal political activity/activism may often shade off into what Gandhi and King did, but something more than activity/activism is needed before one can call the movement stayagaha. A year-long bus boycott, a lunch-counter sit-in, freedom rides that change social relationships is needed. Rallies and protests, gatherings on the Mall are too much like normal political activity/activism to qualify as satyagraha.
Thoughtful comment Brien. I think the distinction I would make in this regard is between conscious suffering (tapas) and satyagraha more broadly. Certainly, speeches, public gatherings and public actions (even if they don’t involve direct confrontation or risk of physical harm) are part of the larger category of satyagraha or nonviolence.
You took the words out of my mouth, Dustin! I don’t see any of these Tea Partiers undergoing conscious, disciplined self-suffering, in a public way, in order to demonstrate the strength of their conviction. Showing up to a rally with a bunch of banners about lowering taxes really doesn’t constitute satyagraha, in my view. Not to mention, most of the issues around which Tea Partiers rally are ones motivated eventually by self-interest (lower taxes, get government intervention out of my life), rather than the kinds of moral commitments and principles that Gandhi claimed should drive political action.
Farah, I’m a little confused here. Is it only a nonviolent movement if some left wing social justice mantra? Only public self suffering demonstrates strength of convictions? Sacrificing time and money is not sacrifice? That does not demonstrate the strength of convictions? That sort of thinking seems rather arrogant to me.
Dustin, other than that whopper of a second paragraph, you make a good argument and one I rather agree with. The framers of the constitution were brilliant men. They answered your question “How can we have the benefits of democracy without the dangers of it?” 230ish years ago with a constitutional republic. American nonviolence is throwin’ them bums out in November to show dissatisfaction.
I appreciate how thoughtful this article is, and I agree with some of it. It’s good to see people taking to the streets when they are annoyed. Sometimes its the only way to know what’s on their minds!
All that said, I am reminded of how much of the tea party’s non-violent communication advocates violence. That is, carrying a sign with a picture of a gun is itself non-violent, but is clearly intended to convey a desire to get violent soon.
Also, perhaps this thoughtful article reveals “non-violence” doesn’t equate with “good” or “beneficial.” For example, you could argue that Dick Cheney was non-violent, since he lacks the character to go to war himself and put himself in physical danger or execute physical violent to fulfill his imperial dreams. However, his actions from his station of power, merely by signing papers and issuing commands, has led to the deaths of millions of human beings.
So, yes in a strict sense he was non-violent, but he certainly is/was not a benefit to humanity. So, yes, in a strict sense, the Tea Party is non-violent, but I don’t see that as cause for celebration, based on the majority of that movement’s tendency to focus on humanity’s baser nature.
To say that Dick Cheney was nonviolent is to completely disown the power of nonviolent analysis. A commitment to nonviolence should encourage us to look for how our actions, directly or indirectly, support violence and to prompt us to search for ways to prevent this continuation. As vice president, Dick Cheney had a remarkable amount of power due to his hierarchical position. To say that he was nonviolent is to accept the blindness that hierarchy demands of us, to believe that Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident rather than a predictable outcome of the administration’s torture policy.
Also, to say that Dick Cheney was nonviolent is to forget that he shot Whittington in the face, and if that isn’t violent, I don’t know what is.
Holy red herring Batman!
Whittington was shot in a hunting accident idiot.
Agreed that there is an element (one of many) within the so-called Tea Party that can be legitimately traced back to the the more radically independant ideals of Patric Henry, et al. I hadn’t really considered the commanality with the groundswell that swept Obama, et al. into power two years ago–but I should have. It’s a shame that too many other, louder facets of this movement are willing to subscribe to the agenda of yelling and fear-mongering that seems to be the preferred methodology of the extreme right in recent years. There are some legitimate grievences (some) that simply aren’t heard when people decide that winning at any cost is more important than actually defending your position in a rational manner. What happened to debating ideas to facilitate a decision? A conversation of like-minded people is not a smart way to make policy, and anyone who aspires to power should keep that in mind . . .
I would completely disagree that the Tea Party is a nonviolent movement. They are using tactics that would belong in a nonviolent campaign, but they are not interested in preventing or even decreasing the amount of violence in the world. Tea Party rhetoric reveals that while they are concerned about the “size” of government (which really means that they oppose the government being used to help poor people), they have nothing to say about the size of the military, the military being used for preemptive wars etc. In addition, there was the Tea Party rally that was explicitly about the right to bear arms (e.g. Hartford CT, 4/15/2010), the Tea Partiers that brought guns to an anti-Obama rally (New Mexico, 1/3/2010) and probably numerous other examples that I don’t know about.
However, more fundamentally to my analysis (though probably not to many other people), I would question the commitment to nonviolence of any group, organization, or movement that has as it’s goal control of a government. A government is an institution that has the ability, (and by its own logic, a morally sanctioned duty) to inflict and threaten violence on its population.
“which really means that they oppose the government being used to help poor people” Care to defend this?
There was a tea party rally in support of the 2nd Amendment to the US Consitution? How unnonviolent of them. (sarcasm). Exactly what part of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is so difficult to understand?
The role of our government is NOT to inflict and threaten violence on the American population. Please read the preamble of the US Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Political speech and elections are how America uses nonviolence to change to government to better represent the will of the people.
I think the various reasons people have given here give us ample reason to question whether the Tea Party’s means and ends are consistent with nonviolence. However, the responses have been interesting to me because they go in two opposite directions. On the one hand, people are saying that the Tea Party is engaged in ordinary democratic processes: they want to get candidates elected, they are speaking out in ways that are legal and don’t require a high degree of personal suffering, or they are pursuing what they believe to be in their self-interest. On the other hand, folks are expressing the idea that the Tea Party is really interested in fomenting violence, either directly or indirectly, and will use any means necessary to achieve their goals and that they want to control and enhance the violence of the state.
I think both of these criticisms have some purchase and do put distance between the Tea Party and the exemplars of nonviolent action. However, at the most fundamental level, what the Tea Party folks have done (with all the caveats in the original post not forgotten) is tapped into the real and immediate needs and frustrations of many ordinary Americans, framed those frustrations in terms of the well-being of Americans more generally, organized and channeled that frustration in a way that expresses itself in the form of power and in doing so have had a real impact on the direction the country will take over the next two years.
Is this the work of a reactionary mob that is full of hate and intent on violence? Perhaps. However, most of the Tea Party activists certainly don’t think of themselves that way. And of course, through the eyes of the right, the antiwar movement, environmentalists, animal rights advocates and anti-globalization protesters simply use nonviolence as a cover for subversion and violence and to put a moral spin on their pernicious and dangerous purposes.
More generally, I think that limiting satyagraha to actions that bring immediate suffering upon those who take the actions is too restrictive, and I think Gandhi understood satyagraha as a larger category and tapas as one kind of satyagraha. Restricting satyagraha to tapas would exclude a great deal of creative nonviolent action. Look no further than the recent post here on WN with pictures from around the world of various kinds of nonviolent action, some of which involve personal suffering and some of which do not. As for ordinary democratic politics, I would argue that indeed there is a genetic connection between democracy and nonviolence. Many theorists of democracy advocate for democratic processes — and designed democratic institutions for the specific purposes of — finding ways to replace physical coercion and violence.