The New Revolutionaries

Tea Party supporters at a March rally in Nevada. Robyn Beck / AFP-Getty Images

It's not just the 4th of July holiday that's raising memories of revolution. The idea of active anti-government resistance, once the province of the fringe or a mere historical parable, is now a common component of the national discourse. If all the voices actively calling for or raising the specter of insurrection since Obama's election in 2008 were to have their way, there would be a logjam of militias on the White House lawn. Three-cornered hats and muskets would sell out in minutes. They'd have to institute a ticket system. One pitchfork jab per man, woman, or child.

Or maybe, more practically, the various disparate groups should draw lots to decide in which of many opposing directions to "take America back." The Tea Party wants to repeat the 1776 revolution, with some selective editing of the founding fathers' aims. The Revolutionary Communist Party is calling for a revolution . against the original revolution itself. Atheists want a revolution against Christianity and other religions.The Hutaree militia, arrested for allegedly trying to kill police officers in Michigan, claimed to be preparing for a battle against the antichrist. A militia that lawmakers want to form in Oklahoma will fight the forces of Barack Obama. Glenn Beck wrote a book about revolution. Rush Limbaugh asked for help from the government of Honduras, of all places, to overthrow the U.S. government. Sarah Palin made what some considered to be a coded call for insurrection with her catch phrase "Don't retreat, reload." (She denies the revolutionary implications.)

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There are enough pending revolutions to make one dizzy. And the impetus is even coming from politicians who are, unlike Palin, still officially seeking to join the government bodies they appear to want to storm with guns. Robespierre, in these revolutionary stories, has applied to bake cakes for Marie Antoinette.

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party favorite who became the GOP Senate nominee in Nevada, was asked about Second Amendment remedies by a right-wing radio host earlier this year. "You know," she said, "our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason, and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

"I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying, 'My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?' I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out." She probably didn't mean take him out for dinner and a movie.

Rick Barber, a Republican primary candidate in Alabama, paid an actor to dress up as George Washington for a campaign ad. Standing ominously and portentously at the end of the ad, the fake Washington instructs concerned, pro-Barber citizens to "Gather your armies."

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It's a shame he's not running in Oklahoma. There, state legislators are trying to pass laws that will allow them to gather their own armies to fight the federal government. Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann is also sick of Washington, except, one would assume, her place in it. She told an AM radio station that she wanted people "armed and dangerous . because we need to fight back." Like Angle, Bachmann cited Jefferson: "Thomas Jefferson told us having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and the people—we the people—are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country."

It's a message that seems to resonate across political boundaries. "This new populism," wrote The New Yorker's James Surowiecki back in February, "has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one 'I'm mad as hell' quilt. The people may have spoken. It's just not clear that they're making any sense." Indeed, the slogan that unites left and right, MSNBC and Fox News, seems to be "What do we want? Something! When do we want it? NOW!"

There are many theories--neat, plausible, and probably wrong--behind the mainstreaming of the 1776 spirit. It might be the recession, which has left many people with time on their hands and resentment against a government that some feel hasn't done enough to help the average Joe and has instead bailed out fat-cat bankers. Possibly it's an extreme form of the anti-intellectual bent that has taken over America in the last two decades--what, after all, is less pointy-headed than breaking into a government office and taking power back forcibly?

Or maybe the same spirit that brought Obama into office in 2008 has merely been magnified and warped. Then, Americans were angry at George W. Bush and the big banks. Now, as the country crumbles and is remade, they're not sure quite who the bad guys are. America, its people, and its politics are increasingly complicated. The economic factors that mean many states can't even afford July 4 fireworks are complicated. Revolution, on the other hand, is simple.