The Tea Party official website greets its visitors with a robust, authentic American flag. Classic American mottos like “Don’t tread on me” and icons like the Statue of Liberty boldly remind visitors that the U.S. is built upon a “stand your ground,” individualist culture. Following the same fashion of the website’s overtly patriotic aesthetics is the “about us” section. The mission statement begins with a gallant nationalistic introduction: “From our founding, the Tea Party represents the voice of the true owners of the United States: WE THE PEOPLE.” If you still had any doubt that the Tea Party was built all-America like a Chevy truck, you would just need to continue reading to learn that by joining the Tea Party “you will be upholding the grand principles set forth in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.” How’s that for as American as apple pie?
It is clear that the Tea Party lives every day as if it were the 4th of July. Yet, we must take a closer look at the Tea Party’s religious obsession with patriotism in order to see what is prompting this group’s strict ideologies. The sacred texts of this organization are foundational documents, such as the Constitution. We must note that these texts are also important to other social groups, like the American Civil Liberties Union. However, the quintessential difference between left-leaning organizations and the Tea Party is how these governmental documents are read. This is to say, the Tea Party specifically focuses on the exact words of Constitution in the hopes of psychically channeling the intentions of the Founding Fathers. Other groups, like the ACLU, read the constitution and incorporate an understanding of today’s culture and society into their interpretation, i.e. the ACLU’s campaign that attempts to interpret the right to privacy as inclusive of technology. We can consider the Tea Party to be strict textualists in order to ambitiously join the league of Scalia-like interpreters.
The correlation between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s method of constitutional interpretation and the Tea Party’s devotion to the strict meaning of the Constitution are mere reflections. In A Matter of Interpretation, Scalia professes one of his quaint aphorisms: “We do not inquire what the legislature meant; we ask only what the statute means” (Scalia 23). In the same manner, the Tea Party concretely states, “We stand by the Constitution as inherently conservative. We serve as a beacon to the masses that have lost their way, a light illuminating the path to the original intentions of our Founding Fathers.” The parallels between Scalia and the Tea Party’s approach unite at a point in which both figures seek a strict reading of the Constitution, as both consider themselves devotees to these documents. In the same way Scalia does, the Tea Party aims to only look towards the words of the Constitution and not listen to political officials or politico-talking heads for an interpretation. The Tea Party understands the interpretation process as strictly between themselves and the document. This seems like a fair and equal approach on behalf of the Tea Party. No political mess obscuring our interpretation of the constitution—just ourselves and the document. Sounds American.
Yet, as is the case for the Tea Party, the richness of the interpreted message is diluted, as the social and cultural backgrounds that hold the documents up is ignored. The Tea Party’s paradoxical messages like “government must be downsized” and “reducing personal income taxes is a must” is quite comedic when we realize that the Tea Party is also utilizing the roads and highways we drive on, attending our public schools and state universities, and using other public services or working public-sector careers that we seem to forget are funded through socialist projects. The Tea Party is a keen example that although we attempt to read the Constitution as a one-dimensional document that lists strict directions on how to run a nation, our country is actually much more diverse and complex. Our nation has varied stakeholders and communities that have different experiences as people living in this country. Therefore, by simply reading foundational texts in a Tea Party-esque manner, where we attempt to picture the political wishes of 16th century White, property owning, slave owning, heterosexual, Christian men, we are using this imaginary as the ruler that measures the state of a culturally diverse nation. This approach neglects and continues to other “the other” (women, working-class, LGBTQ, person of color, etc.) in a way that ignores her position as a legitimate stakeholder in our society. As much as the Tea Party champions the idea of “we the people,” it fails to incorporate these identities through their manner of interpretation. And that is un-American.