Dismiss The Tea Party At Your Peril
"Those who doubt that the failings of higher education in America have political consequences need only reflect on the quality of progressive commentary on the tea party movement."
“Progressive” commentary about the Tea Party movement — such as E.J. Dionne’s assertion that it reflects the “anti-statism” of the Anti-Federalists who lost out at America’s founding — does more to illuminate the lack of knowledge of political history of the commentators than the reality of the movement:
To be sure, the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.
Born in response to President Obama’s self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives.
In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.
But far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy.
Likewise, the fervently held beliefs that the Tea Party is racist and just “astroturf.” The desire to simply wave the movement off as irrelevant or even dangerous fuels conspiracy theories about the Koch brothers and the obsession with the handful of bad apples who show up with objectionable signs. Those attitudes certainly aren’t informed by an objective assessment of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who turn out for rallies, send reams of money to candidates, and continue to be engaged with politics a year and a half after the movement first arose. And casting support for limited government as “opposing government [as] a matter of principle” is a strawman of the most birdbrained sort.
Whether members have read much or little of The Federalist, the tea party movement’s focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution. One reason this is poorly understood among our best educated citizens is that American politics is poorly taught at the universities that credentialed them. Indeed, even as the tea party calls for the return to constitutional basics, our universities neglect The Federalist and its classic exposition of constitutional principles….
[L]leading history departments have emphasized social history and issues of race, class and gender at the expense of constitutional history, diplomatic history and military history.
Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.
The Tea Party isn’t that complicated a phenomenon. Robert A. Heinlein described their essential nature decades ago:
Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
Yes, the movement has attracted some bizarre, even wacky, folks, some of whom see it as a vehicle for promoting an agenda squarely opposed to its limited government roots. But, for all that that minority tends to get most of the attention from people who really don’t want to understand it, the broader Tea Party movement represents the awakening of the ‘leave me be’ types. Such people, by definition, aren’t generally inclined to political activism. Perhaps that’s why more and more ordinary people identify with the movement and support its goals even as its detractors become ever more caustic in their attacks on it.
An expansive view of the state as a means of accomplishing good almost invariably carries with an attitude that one knows better than other people what “good” is and the concomitant belief that it’s acceptable to use the power of government to force such ideas on people “for their own good.” Regular Joes and Janes who prefer to be left alone can see the effects of this attitude in ever-expanding government. TARP, the “stimulus,” repeated bailouts, health care reform — each coming rapidly on the heels of the last — (and the promise of more such policy to come) were like a shock to the system, jarring them out of their inertia. And they don’t much appreciate the inherent condescension of their “betters” who rammed all of this through regardless of popular opinion either. So when they see a bunch of people a lot more like them than the ones trying to “fundamentally transform” their country being pilloried with vulgar sexual slurs as racists and extremists, it’s only natural that they start feeling more affinity for the Tea Party.
In short, the facile handwavium that underlies “progressive” dismissal of the Tea Party as a “crazy” bunch of astroturfed racists serves to highlight the ignorance and disconnectedness of those self-same “progressives” — and to promote, rather than marginalize, the movement.