Bringing the Tea Party into Focus

By Thomas Hauch ’13

Where can conservatives possibly turn? Federal spending today has reached a level unmatched since the height of World War II (~25% of GDP). And with the recession as its excuse, Congress has expanded the government to new and historic proportions. Yet the agenda of the last several years has failed to address the crisis we find ourselves in today. Unemployment remains chronically high, production has stagnated, and confidence in our future has deteriorated. By attempting to spend America’s way out of the recession, and failing in the act, Congress has bestowed upon future generations the gift of certain fiscal insolvency.  The projected growth in entitlements alone is enough to convince any reasonable individual that change is necessary.

According to a June Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives, a plurality among the electorate. They have come to question the reckless arrogance of our leadership, and they realize that the expansion of federal power is not a solution. Unfortunately for them, conservatives can no longer place their hopes in the Republican Party. After all, the fiscal situation today can be traced in large part to the Bush administration and its failed platform of “compassionate conservatism.”

Restraint and responsibility have not been seen at the federal level in decades. There is a movement in American politics, however, that has promised to restore those values.  It calls itself the Tea Party, and it has given conservatives reasons for hope, as well as fear.  Its name refers to the Boston Tea Party, a protest against the Tea Act of 1773 (which sought to expand the British monopoly over the colonial tea trade) and the culmination of long-standing resistance to British rule.

Of course, there is no single “Party,” and as such, there is no single platform that defines this movement.

Although the Tea Party is well orchestrated through local and national chapters, it lacks a discernible structure of leadership. Its members transcend traditional lines of economic, social, and ethnic segregation. Businessmen march in-step with retired veterans and lifetime laborers.  For many of its members, this is a first foray into political activism. Glenn Reynolds writes in The New York Post, “These aren’t the usual semiprofessional protesters who attend antiwar and pro-union marches. These are people with real jobs; most have never attended a protest march before.”

Some, however, have tried to write off the Tea Party as nothing more than right-wing media stunt. Paul Krugman argues in the New York Times, “It turns out, the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re Astroturf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects.” But such a claim ignores the essence of this movement. True, figures like Sarah Palin and Dick Armey have attempted to steer the energy of this movement, and the GOP has been able to incorporate its momentum within its tired regime. But the Tea Party remains a populist voice, one that began of its own accord and continues to act independently.

In fact, the concept of this movement dates all the way back to December 16, 2007. On the anniversary of the colonial protest, supporters of congressman Ron Paul came together in Boston during a fundraising event that emphasized Paul’s fiscal conservatism.

Nearly three years later, that event continues to define the core values of the Tea Party. Stripped of all its excess, freed of all its fringe extremists, the Tea Party is at heart a libertarian movement. It decries the fiscal irresponsibility that plagues our government and aims to restore traditional conservatives values in American leadership. The Tea Party Patriots, one of several national organizations, lists three core values for the movement: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. Defined by these values, the Tea Party is indeed the flag-bearer of classical conservative traditions.

It wasn’t until the early part of 2009, however, that the Tea Party emerged on the national scene. Amidst a flurry of new federal laws passed under the Obama administration, the Tea Party began to gain traction in politics and attention from the media. By then, the American public had begun to tire of activist government. Although they voted Obama and the Democrats into power, clearly the electorate had wanted nothing more than change from the status quo. When faced with the reality of that “change,” however, the public was forced to look elsewhere for solutions. And they discovered (or perhaps rediscovered) them within the key tenets of conservatism, among which include the support of traditional codes of conduct, economic freedom, and a limited and a responsible government.

Through its outspoken criticism of the recent health care reform bills and the second round of economic stimulus, the Tea Party has offered a voice for these conservative sentiments.  And it has begun to lend its weight to the political arena as well, upsetting the traditional GOP establishment and shaping the course of this mid-term election.

In the Delaware Republican Senate primary, a former marking executive and political novice dealt a stunning defeat to a career politician. In New York, a Tea Party-backed executive trounced a former Republican congressman in the race for governor. In primaries throughout the United States, incumbents have been swept aside, and former Republican favorites have been overwhelmed. Admittedly, some longstanding Republicans have weathered this storm. In the Arizona primary, for example, John McCain managed to hold off challenger J.D. Hayworth, signifying that perhaps the Tea Party craze is on its way out the door. But the competitiveness of these races points towards a movement we cannot simply write off, as the Tea Party represents an honest and lasting groundswell of conservatism from the grassroots.

And with Democrats under fire and the traditional GOP in disarray, it seems that the only challenge remaining for the Tea Party is itself.  As mentioned before, adherents of the movement represent a truly broad spectrum of society, and so it should come as no surprise that tension does exist among its ranks.

According to a Blloomberg News poll, for instance, over half of self-described Tea Party members believe that the government should limit executive bonuses. Such blatant interference in the private sector is hard to reckon with a philosophy of restraint. Moreover, many of its members are among the wealthy and connected who have benefited from that freedom. It opposes increases in entitlement spending, even as seniors and veterans join its ranks. It advocates the strengthening of American borders and the protection of American jobs, while at the same time cheering the merits of free markets and open trade. Indeed, the list of contradictions goes on and on.

J. Ann Selzer, the designer of the Bloomberg News poll cited above, points out that “the ideas that find nearly universal agreement among Tea Party supporters are rather vague.” Although it remains steadfast in its support of fiscal restraint, the movement has struggled to define a position on the role of religion, the commitment of armed forces, and the rights of illegal immigrants. Tea Party members do agree, just as any sensible conservative would as well, that American leadership has led us on a road to fiscal and economic malaise. But without a firm resolve on policy, it is easy enough to chalk those feelings up to anger and hostility, rather than a deep commitment to conservative philosophy.

After all, their commitment to history (which some, like Glenn Beck, are all too proud to share) is unquestionably tenuous. They revere the Founding Fathers unconditionally, and they treat the Constitution as a sacred scripture. And yet the original Constitution was conceived in order to strengthen the federal government (later tempered by the additional Bill of Rights). The Constitution attempted to redress the flaws of the Articles of Confederation, which had bestowed a disastrous level of power in the hands of state governments.

Even more worrisome, however, are the fringe elements that have absorbed the media’s spotlight. There are elements in the Tea Party that regard the government with fear and trembling, sensing conspiracy and corruption at every turn. As Matthew Continetti writes in the Weekly Standard, “there is another tendency, one that believes the government is so corrupt, the constitutional system so perverted, that only radical solutions will save America from certain doom.” Conservative philosophy does not call for a revolution. Certain aspects of government should be scaled back, and we might be better off without some of them at all. But conservatives also recognize the need for a limited government to ensure fair markets and certain moral and ethical standards. 

If it remains committed to those ideals, then the Tea Party has the ability to carry out a tremendous service for this nation. It has wrested the electorate from the progressive ideology of the Obama administration, and it has restored the conservative sensibilities of Americans. The Tea Party movement is not a political candidate, and it has no need to establish a definite political platform. Its purpose is simply to educate the public on the merits of conservatism. But if it plays to the hands of its extremists, the Tea Party will only serve to distort those values. The Tea Party movement has a mission, but it needs focus.