Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2010

This year's election season has been more polarized and hyper-intense than any I've experienced in my life. It is healthy for the citizens of a democratic nation like the United States to express their strongly-held views and to advocate for the election of people who share those views.

As a Republican since before I was old enough to vote, I have had the opportunity to work with many people in my party whose political leanings could be described as spanning a spectrum from extremely fiscally and socially conservative to quite moderate in both hemispheres of policy and political belief.

The so-called "tea party" movement burst on to the national political scene after the election of President Barack Obama two years ago, taking its name from a watershed moment in the American War of Independence. On Dec. 16, 1773, a group of British subjects in the Colony of Massachusetts Bay made a calculated decision to board a ship and empty the India tea in the cargo hold into Boston Harbor. In addition to rendering the tea unsuitable for drinking, these proto-Americans (reduced to buying cheaper smuggled Dutch tea) said "Hell No!" to an absurdly high tax on tea, all of the proceeds of which went to pay salaries for colonial officials who were thus unaccountable to the colonists. It is hard not to share their righteous indignation.

By the early 1770s there was massive resentment toward King George III, his Prime Minister Lord North, and the taxation policies under which the colonists chafed. The tea-destruction scheme was a sudden yet predictable activist outburst by a really large group of people who knew just why the tea on three specific ships represented something bad. After the tea had been scuttled, politicians took credit for the uprising and associated themselves with it. Most importantly, they incorporated the event into their efforts to break away from the British Crown and move on to the First Continental Congress and Independence. It was a brilliant harnessing of human behavior at a transformational moment in our history.

I can see why someone would want to analogize voters today - frustrated with current federal expenditures and the monstrous federal deficit - with enraged colonists in 1773 who simply wanted representation so they could have a voice in allocating how the taxes they paid were spent. But the comparison doesn't withstand even minimal scrutiny. Voters today have plenty of voice in how federal taxes are spent, and they seem to want a lot of the spending to continue, especially in the form of direct entitlements.

We in Alaska receive far more in return on each dollar we send to Washington, and that has been directly beneficial to Alaska for my entire life. Given the amount of Alaska that is federally-designated park or other otherwise as off-limits, many generations of Alaskans will have come and gone before we will have received our "fair share" of federal money. Alaskans are similar to 1773 colonists in that we are on the periphery of a great economic power and we want to make sure our voices are heard in the far-away metropolis of power, but I don't know if that translates into the 2010 tea party message of limiting or ending that power altogether.

Sometimes bold and symbolic actions are crucial to making progress in long-term political struggles, so the tea party movement today associates itself with the Boston Tea Party, but what is the specific goal now, 237 years later? Is it radical independence from our current federal government in the form of wholesale elimination of half or all that federal government? Or is it a well-timed, indeed, overdue return to asking hard questions about how we're spending money at the federal level realizing that we must dramatically shrink the federal deficit to ensure the long-term health of the American and global economies?

Looking at some of the national standard-bearers for the tea party does not inspire tremendous confidence. Christine O'Donnell of Delaware is unarguably unelectable. Her primary accomplishment this year is to make life easy for the creators of political satire. Sharron Angle may win, and ousting Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is a laudable goal, what can one expect to happen should she win?

The colonists who boarded that ship in Boston were part of a larger social movement that demonstrated consistency and follow-through, and thus produced outstanding results. We still have a great deal to learn about the intentions and ability of many of those associated with the 2010 Tea Party to accomplish anything as momentous as their nominal forebears.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.



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