Here's a monumental historical irony: a moment in the origins of the United States that every American schoolchild learns to view with pride, the Boston Tea Party, has now become a symbol of our (inter)national shame. In one sense, it is difficult to know what to say in response to the utter irrationality of the Tea Party's self-destructive decision to sabotage the American political process – and thus its own country's economy, and the global economy.
Last week, while the US government was locked in stalemate and risked defaulting on its national debt for the first time in its history (and thus also defying the Constitution that Tea Partiers supposedly hold sacred, which declares in the 14th Amendment that it is illegal for Congress to default), Michele Bachmann instructed her followers not to listen to those who attempted to "scare" them with untruths that the US would default if it didn't raise the debt ceiling. When, of course, that is precisely what it would have done. But the Tea Party has never let facts get in the way of its belief system, and now that belief system is genuinely threatening the wellbeing of the nation they claim to love.
Mottos are supposed to express a philosophy: in so far as the Tea Party can be said to have anything so exalted as a philosophy, their motto is quite telling. They are one of the most inaccurately named movements in American political history, but that inaccuracy is itself emblematic of the party's adamantine ignorance. Any American schoolchild can tell you the motto of the historical Boston Tea Party from which they take their name and – they mistakenly believe – their inspiration: "No taxation without representation."
Impatient with those extra two words, evidently, the Tea Party has truncated this proposition to something simpler: "No taxation." Never mind that the US has among the lowest levels of taxation in the developed world, matched only by Mexico and Chile (are these the nations the Tea Party would like to emulate?). Never mind that the nation's actual Founding Fathers were perfectly prepared to pay taxes – they just thought those taxes should purchase them a democratic voice in their own government.
The motto that came out of the Constitutional Convention was not "In God We Trust": it was "E Pluribus Unum," out of many, one. The phrase "In God We Trust" emerged from the American Civil War, but it wasn't put on US currency until the Cold War, in 1955. The following year, the same year he signed the Civil Rights bill into law, Eisenhower made it the nation's motto.
In other words, In God We Trust is an act of revisionist history and retrospective religiosity, reinserting religion into our national history. But the attempt to create one from many has led to Civil War more than once (the American Revolution was a civil war), and parts of the South regularly seceding (the South and other states threatened to walk out of the Constitutional Congress, did secede in the 1860s, and revolted again in 1944, with the so-called 'Dixiecrats.')
Texas was forever threatening to secede. The Tea Party could secede with my blessing: E Pluribus Unum is clearly not a motto that they are prepared to embrace – despite their supposed reverence for the Founding Fathers and the American Constitution.
Anyone who followed last year's midterms and knew anything about American history already realised this. Tea Party candidates kept invoking semi-mythical figures such as Paul Revere, who was not a Founding Father at all: in fact, most of Revere's supposed story was a legend written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860 to rouse popular sentiment on behalf of the Union cause in the Civil War – in other words, to maintain the spirit of E Pluribus Unum and fight against divisive polarisation.
Tea Partiers love mentioning Thomas Paine because they think they share his "Common Sense" (otherwise known as a sense held in common) but they haven't bothered to read it, and are clearly unfamiliar with essays such as "Public Good", in which Paine wrote that, especially while at war (as America currently is, of course): "To have a clear idea of taxation is necessary to every country, and the more funds we can discover and organise, the less will be the hope of the enemy."
As Harvard historian Jill Lepore argued last year in her brilliant The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History, none of the people voting for the Tea Party candidates knows any of this because they haven't studied American history since grade school, when all American schoolchildren learn a simplified, cartoon version of the American Revolution (which we would never call the "War of Independence").
It is a Sesame Street version of the American constitution and politics, a myth that is being treated as the alpha and omega of our political and legal reality. This is one reason why it has a quasi-religious aspect: it's a myth of genesis, it's a creation myth about America that is just as simple as the idea that God created man and woman: the Founding Fathers created America.
The Tea Party version of the American Revolution is not just fundamentalist: it is also Disneyfied, sentimentalised, and whitewashed. It rests on a naïve, solipsistic and exceptionalist faith that for America it will all work out in the end, because America is "the greatest nation in the world". They take solace in tautology: America is great – this they know – because Fox News tells them so.
Their goal, as others have said, is to roll back the clock a century and more. In 1892, when the robber baron and corrupt financier Jay Gould died, Mark Twain wrote a scathing epitaph: Gould, he said, "reversed the commercial morals of the United States. He had put a blight upon them from which they have never recovered, and from which they will not recover for as much as a century to come. Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country."
It has been a century and we have surely not recovered: but we have managed to create an even mightier disaster. It remains to be seen whether we will recover, but it is long past time to stop making declarations of independence. We need to get back to work forming a more perfect union – or any union at all.
Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies