Let me start by stating the obvious. I do not believe that the Tea Party wants to secede, or that there is any danger of secession by red states, or any threat of civil war. So in that sense, the Tea Party is nothing like the Democrats of the 1850's. But in an attempt to find some sort of parallel in our history, I have been looking at books about that fateful decade that was the countdown to the Civil War, and I see a dynamic in Southern Democrats that bears a certain resemblance to the Tea Party today.
To understand the 1850's, one must go back at least to the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
This raises an interesting question. Why did California seek admission as a wholly free state? And why couldn't pro-slavery settlers keep up with the anti-slavery settlers in Kansas? It is commonly said that by 1850, slavery had reached its natural limit because all new land acquired by the US was simply too dry to be good for plantation agriculture. But California today is the US capital of plantation agriculture (in the sense of large-scale, labor-intensive cultivation of cash crops), and at least parts of Kansas were hospitable to tobacco. The answer appears to be that decades of rapid expansion had spread the South thin. It had an abundance of uncultivated land and a shortage of (slave) labor. It simply did not have enough people to keep expanding. The North, by contrast, had a more rapidly growing population because the bulk of immigrants were going there. Parts of its growing population were building cities and industrial development, but other parts were heading west -- and did not want to compete with slaves. In short, slavery had reached its limits, not just because of geography, but because of demography. Much of the South's actions throughout the 1850's might be seen as an attempt to legislate away basic geographic and demographic facts. Needless to say, the attempt was not successful.
At the same time, the South held surprising domination of the federal government by a sort of 19th Century version of the Hastert Rule -- government by the majority of the majority. The South was a minority region, but it held the majority of the Democratic Party, which, in turn, was the majority party. Nonetheless, Northern Democrats were increasingly beginning to chafe under Southern domination. They might not care about slavery as a moral issue, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act had hurt them, and they were becoming restive. This was clearly born out in the Democratic Convention of 1856. Initially, Southerners' favorite candidate was the incumbent President, Franklin Pierce. But Pierce proved unacceptable in the North because of his support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Southerners then swung their support to Douglas, who was also widely unacceptable in the North for the same reason. All sides ultimately agreed on James Buchanan, who had played no part in the controversy, and who went on to win the election.
The next crisis occurred almost immediately after Buchanan's inauguration, when the Supreme Court came out with the Dred Scott decision, holding (among other things) that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories, making the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. The effect of the ruling was to hold the Republican Party unconstitutional and call for it to disband itself, although of course the decision did not say so in so many words. Needless to say, Republicans were outraged at this overreach and showed no disposition whatever to disband, or to abandon their goals. Dred Scott also posed a potential threat to popular sovereignty because it hinted that a territorial legislature, as a mere creation of the federal government, could not exclude slavery either. This threatened to raise a major rift between northern and southern Democrats, but at the time they were able to paper over the distinction. Douglas -- and many Southern Democrats as well -- argued that, although a territorial legislature could not ban slavery outright, it had no obligation to give any support to slavery and could therefore effectively exclude it.
The potential rift came to head in 1858, when the Missouri-controlled Kansas legislature applied for admission of Kansas as a slave state against the clear wishes of the population. That was a bridge too far for Douglas. He was willing to ignore slavery as a moral issue and treat it as simply another thing to be decided by majority vote, but imposing slavery on the people of Kansas against their will was going too far. Besides, he was up for election later that year, and to admit Kansas as a slave state against the wishes of the population would have been political suicide. Douglas led the fight in Congress to block the admission of Kansas as a slave state (ultimately successful) and thereby made himself as hated in the South as any Republican -- indeed, more, because he was seen as a traitor.
Congress' refusal to admit Kansas as a slave state was followed shortly by the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln pressed Douglas during the debates on how a territory could exclude slavery if Dred Scott forbade such an action. Douglas gave the answer he had been giving for some time -- that a territorial legislature could not ban slavery outright, but it could exclude it by "unfriendly legislation." At about the same time, Jefferson Davis (then a Senator from Mississippi) was giving a speech to New England's dwindling band of Democrats, and assured them that Dred Scott did not mean forcing slavery on a territory against the wishes of the inhabitants since they could always exclude it by failing to pass a slave code. When Douglas learned of this speech, he quickly seized upon it to prove that his opinion was no different from the opinion of the most prominent Southern militant. Wanting to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the hated Douglas, Southern Democrats then began demanding that Congress pass a slave code for the territories -- a thing that was utterly unacceptable to northerners, Democratic or Republican, anti-slavery or indifferent, and which therefore stood no chance whatever of getting through Congress.**
During the 1860 Democratic Convention, the American public was treated to the sight of a major political party committing suicide by self-disembowlment. Southern Democrats made clear that they would not accept Douglas as the nominee under any circumstances, and demanded that the party endorse a slave code for the territories. This demand was utterly unacceptable to Northern Democrats, who rallied behind Douglas. Vicious in-fighting followed, and the Southerners ended up walking out of the convention to nominate their own candidate. The Northern remnant nominated Douglas. The split sealed the Democrats' fate and guaranteed that Lincoln would win as the Republican candidate. Southerners, unwilling to endure a Republican in the White House, seceded.
So what does this depressing story have to do with the Tea Party? Quite simply, it shares the Tea Party's dynamic in several ways. To take the most obvious similarity, the Democrats in the 1850's and the Republicans today were both examples of a party splitting. In both cases, hard liners increasingly came to value combativeness for its own sake above an beyond achieving any sort of outcome. And both came to value ideological purity above electoral success. Of course, there are major differences as well. Most obviously, secession and civil war are not in the cards this time. Nor is the difference this time anything as simple as a sectional split.
But perhaps the most disturbing similarity, I believe, is that the underlying motive is one of fear and despair. Southerners in the 1850's were enjoying a period of unprecedented prosperity and political dominance, but they could read the handwriting on the wall. Geography and demography were stacked against them. They spent a futile decade trying to legislate these facts away. Likewise, much attention has been paid to this survey and its emphasis on fear and despair as the Tea Party's great motives. They, too, fear that their party is doomed and demographic is in hopeless decline. I see despairing comments on blogs that there will never be another Republican President. My response is to say that such fears are foolish of course there will be another Republican President. He (or she) will just have to adapt to changing times. But they Tea Party are people who do not want to adapt to changing times; they want times not to change and do not know how to achieve it.
And that is how the Tea Party is most like the secessionists -- they are both standing athwart history, shouting stop!
*Actually, 36 degrees, 30 minutes.
**Many accounts today, wanting to maximize Lincoln's role, claim that it was Douglas' answer during the debates that made him unacceptable to the South. I highly recommend Don Fehrenbacher's The Dred Scott Case and Stephen Oates' The Approaching Fury (and no doubt many other detailed histories of the period). By giving a detailed chronology of events, they make clear the it was Douglas opposition to the admission of Kansas as a slave state that made him unacceptable in the South, and that anything he said in the Lincoln-Douglas debates was simply an excuse to hate him more.