The Private Citizen / "Reading tea leaves"
One of the highlights of my social calendar last month was the annual dinner meeting of the Connecticut Supreme Court Historical Society. Many of the members are appellate lawyers, judges and justices. The president of the society is Wesley Horton, who is easily the premier appellate advocate in our state, and a friend.
The featured speaker was Jeff Benedict, whose book, Little Pink House, is about Kelo v. New London -- the eminent domain decision that had caused such a stir in 2005. That was the case where the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed that yes, the city of New London could use its power of eminent domain to take Ms. Kelo's house for a development project. The public reaction to the decision was immediate, and visceral. Wes had argued the case for the city, and as he tells the story, had correctly anticipated the key question from the Court: Can the power of eminent domain be used to take a Motel Six, and replace it with a Ritz Carlton? His answer, which shocked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor but carried the day, was "yes."
I had read the opinion, and in fact I had read the transcript of the oral argument; what I had not read was Benedict's book, and I had time to fix that. In my focus on the technical aspects of the case, I had missed just how sympathetic a character Susette Kelo was, or why the response was so dramatic. I am starting to get it.
Ms. Kelo -- she was the surprise guest at the dinner -- was an emergency room nurse and a single mother who, at age 40, bought her first house. It overlooked New London harbor, and not long after she had moved in and repainted it, the city began proceedings to take it as part of a major redevelopment project. The author detailed the machinations of the late Rowland Administration, and the plans of the prominent, well-intentioned people -- the leaders of Pfizer and Connecticut College among them -- who ran the redevelopment commission, to bring about a revitalized New London. It was sort of like the succession of revitalization projects that emanate from each new mayor of Bridgeport, full of sound and fury and getting, ultimately, nowhere. The difference was that Ms. Kelo fought all the way, literally, to the Supreme Court of the United States against the taking of her house.
The appeal of the story is that Ms. Kelo was Everywoman, and the home she had dreamed about and spent her last dollar to buy was being taken for the benefit of an abstraction -- that was what hit people where they lived. It is a recurring theme in our polity, that an idea that makes sense to those in government can and often does result in the loss of something tangible and concrete that someone not in government holds dear, a loss quickly followed by mutual incomprehension. "How can anyone be against such a good idea?" "I don't care how good an idea it is, you can't have my home/gun/neighborhood school/autonomy."
I think the Kelo case was the beginning of the Tea Party.
This past winter, I wrote that I was trying to understand the Tea Party movement. I knew people were upset about something, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I quipped (I've always wanted to say that!) that "the original Boston Tea Party wasn't about taxation, it was about taxation without representation. Today's discontent is not about preserving, protecting and defending the Articles of Confederation." I knew what it wasn't about, I just didn't know what it was about. As I think of it, my perspective was probably what got in the way of my understanding. I may be an iconoclast, but I have served in government, I worked my first election when I was twelve, and I went to my first state convention -- with credentials, at that -- when I was 15. I am used to abstract arguments, and policies that make logical sense, and I have been sympathetic to municipal governments all my life.
The column drew a response, and it came from someone I knew in law school. He quoted Hayek (the economist, not the actress), and we traded views on Ayn Rand, whom we had both read, in different decades. As a certified member of a learned profession, though, I wonder if he didn't over-think it a bit. Personally, I think the movement is better summarized by the motto on the alternate flag of the American Revolution: "Don't Tread on Me."
The Tea Party isn't a political party, at least not as I understand the term. My idea of a political party is a group of 20 or 30 people who stuff envelopes and cross names off of lists, who ring the doorbells and man the polls and who, since they are the ones who do the actual work of a campaign, get to have a say on who the candidates will be. True parties usually have platforms, although usually at the national level, and a formal organizational structure, with duly elected leaders and spokesmen, even if those are congressmen. But platforms and a leadership structure are abstractions, and those don't fit with the Tea Party phenomenon as I have imagined it. It's only called a party because it was named after a social event.
Those who would govern have little, and much, to fear from this. It is not an organized party that can direct its support to one candidate or another. But it is an expression of the real concerns of real people for whom abstract logic is not always enough -- and whose votes count as much as mine does.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.