On Tea Parties and Such

Full disclosure: I’ve not attended any of these “tea parties” (as the Santelli-rant-derived designation goes), and in terms of my voter registration, I’m independent, pretty much most of the time fed up with either of the primary parties which are represented on my various ballots. I was a sporadic voter out of college, but have voted in every general election since 2000, and the non-presidential cycles, and almost every primary since 2006. Beyond that, my political philosophy does not align neatly with any one party or candidate, so most of the time it’s a matter of prioritizing my priorities.

I have, however, kept an eye, via the media, on the tea party movement as it’s starting to be called–especially when punditry critical of it has to resort to sexually vulgar terms to refer to it, sort of like third grade boys repeating a new obscenity endlessly and feeling giddily cool about it. I’m not claiming to understand the tea party movement, but clearly the pundits critical of it either do understand it and fear it, or just simply and ignorantly fear it–and therefore dismiss it with vulgarities.

I think the tea party movement could well be among the most powerful political movements seen in America in a long time. I saw could, because I believe it presently is at a critical juncture. The strength of the movement is, quite frankly, in its decentralization. This seems oxymoronic, but, in fact, if the movement begins to be more organized, especially if it comes under a single leader, whether Gov Palin or whomever, its message will become diffused and weak, because it will be co-opted by forces which are antithetical to its existence. The conventional wisdom would seem to offer that to achieve power, the tea partiers must organize and centralize, then win in the general election nationally (and statewide wherever possible). I think this is exactly opposite of what should happen. The tea party movement should work itself into local leadership primarily, and from there move to “bigger” offices. Yes, the federal and state governments have huge impact on our lives–and that, in my view (fueled by Jacques Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity) is the problem–but it’s the county that has my everyday purchases jacked up to 10%. It’s the local school board that impacts the education of our children, and so forth. I believe the genius of the tea party movement is its decentralization. By building a decentralized local foundation, it is less susceptible of toppling when national or state leaders lose elections.

The other strength which could potentially be weakened is the breadth of view points orbiting a smaller and more central set of focus principles: less taxes, smaller government, fiscal accountability and so forth. For example (and I’m not claiming this is a position of the tea party movement): Fiscal conservatives on both sides of the social issue of abortion can agree that the government ought not fund abortion. They may find themselves at odds as to the legality of the procedure, but still have common ground politically on its funding. If the tea party movement starts to coalesce into the lowest common denominator on a much broader range of social and political issues, it will simply find itself being absorbed into the Borg that is the Democratic and Republican parties, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee.

As one who finds the libertarian social agenda wanting in common sense reality, I think the strength of the tea party movement is that it is focused on fiscal conservatism, limited federal government, and so forth. These are, actually, pretty broad-based in pollling it seems to me, whereas on some of the social issues, this is not the case (though recent polling suggests that a plurality of Americans are opposed to abortion, by way of one counterexample).

While I’m not sold on Gov. Palin as a candidate, I do like her as a person, and am finding her gaining in her articulation of the issues. Perhaps by 2012 or 2016 she might have gained enough chops policy-wise to become a viable and winsome candidate. But I can say this without hesitation: I hope the tea party does not take her on as their de facto leader. Or anyone else for that matter. If the movement does take on such a leader, then the movement is very likely to be short-lived. (As a side note, I think it would be disastrous for Gov. Palin, if she is thinking of elected office in the next cycles, to seek to be or to allow herself to be co-opted as the leader of the tea party movement. If there is a genius to her working right now, it is that she is operating non-traditional media brilliantly, she is presently working within the Republican party but not being perceived as a Republican insider, and she is making millions to personally fund a warchest.)

It remains to be seen whether the tea party movement will find a unified voice on social issues. Some of the anecdotal stories of such gatherings seem to suggest there is a coalescence on some social issues. I think if they find a voice on one or two such issues, one that resonates on principled argumentation, then adding these to their fiscal conservatism and limited government could make for a very powerful political force. It will be interesting to see, however, how this political force moves ahead, whether it will infiltrate both the Democratic and Republican parties, which could be amazingly powerful in pushing both parties center-right on key legislation and governance, or whether it will find the need to fuel third party candidates. If the tea party movement tries to do this at the national level, I think we’ll simply have a repeat of the Perot debacle that ensured a lack of majority for any winning candidate. I think the tea partiers would be smarter to simply work in the venues they can: Democratic or Republican. Because after all, what the tea parties espouse are principles not parties.

But this is just the point now which I think will prove decisive for the movement. Will they continue to focus on principles, or will they devolve into partisan power-seeking.

3 thoughts on “On Tea Parties and Such

  1. Like you, I am fascinated by the idea of the movement; I vote, usually holding my nose, for whichever candidate (in any election) seems less bad. At heart, I am for small-scale local economics, local government, and decentralization–all things that the tea party movement could be about, if it had some serious articulation.

    I think, however, that all Howard Beale inspiration aside, a movement has to be about more than just anger at something (even something as blatantly manipulative and increasingly tyrannical as the federal government); unfortunately, what I do not see in this ‘conservative’ movement (and I am loath to call it that–this country is not conservative at all…it was simply founded on 18th century liberalism, which we find more palatable than 21st century liberalism) is any kind of intellectual voice or backing.

    And, people will accuse me of snobbery on this, and I don’t care; philosophy defines any political movement. That’s the problem with the ‘religious right’–they have virtually zero serious intellectual defenses of their position (that might beg the question if such a defense is even possible, but…). If you’re going to win the culture war, the onus isn’t to convince your supporters that they are right–it is to convince those on the other side. “The Bible says so” might get you points down here in the Bible Belt, but to be taken seriously, you need more than that. The two names I keep hearing in connection to the tea party movement are Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. There is something about both of them that make me uneasy, though I can’t put my finger on it. And one thing is for sure: neither of them is the equal of Barry Goldwater or William F. Buckley, Jr.

    What disturbs me is the worship of the ‘genius’ of Reagan; true, he was instrumental in stopping the ruin that would’ve come from long-term Carterism, but in the end, Reagan was just a man. And, he was just a man who was largely following policies articulated by others (among whom are the aforementioned Misters Goldwater and Buckley). My parents (particularly my mother) are all caught up in this ‘movement’–buying oodles of books from Palin and Beck, watching Beck’s tv show with more or less religious devotion, and constantly telling me about things involving large scale bad government policies that I’ve been telling them about for the better part of a decade (but, being a stupid kid, and not a national political pundit who writes books, what can I possibly know?)–and I just have to ask the question, like the Grail King, “Whom does [it] serve?”

    The answer to that will, in the end, determine my judgment on the tea party movement.

  2. Justinian:

    I agree.

    I think there *are* philosophical political principles at work in the movement, though I think that the nature of the conservative political movement in the U.S. is that there is no single overarching developed philosophy, but, rather the coalescence of several such philosophies. Or, perhaps better, the congruence of more or less congenial political/philosophical ideals.

    The talents and skills of Buckley, who was able, almost singlehandedly, to weave together the “movements” of his era of the 40s-60s that led ultimately to the so-called “Reagan Revolution, is sadly missed today. There is no such equivalent. National Review isn’t the venue. Nor The Weekly Standard, nor Fox News.

    But in my view, echoing your “small is beautiful” comments, this is actually better. Look what happened to the “Reagan Revolution”–it was diluted and diffused by Bush 41, sidetracked by Clinton, and further diluted and diffused by Bush 43. Both Bushes were Republicans but they were not conservatives. I think the failure of the “Reagan Revolution” was just this orientation toward centralization. Decentralization is the key. Hopefully the present tea party movement, and whatever it ends up morphing into, will hold on to that. Gov. Palin sounded this note in her speech this past weekend, but I wonder whether it will hold.

    Like you, I’m fearful that the celebrity fetish we have in our culture will derail the tea party movement. As soon as the movement latches on to a Beck, or a Palin, or someone else gloms on to the movement, it’s over. We’ll see what happens.

    I am more sanguine than you about the articulation of the tea party ideals. I think such articulation is there, but of course, it is not a unified message. And, of course, in the era of sensationalism, we get extremist soundbites and endless applause lines. I think Gov. Palin still has a long way to go to learn how to artfully articulate her message and appear inartful at the same time.

    So, on the one hand, I do think you’re right: I think the phenomenon of last spring and summer was motivated by anger, which made for great media. But it seems clear that there’s something more than anger going on, as witnessed by the losses in Virginia, NJ, and Massachusetts. I think we are starting to see the beginnings of a message being formulated as witnessed by Gov Palin’s weekend speech. But there’s still a long way to go to have it said in ways that communicate beyond the emotion-inducing soundbyte and applause lines.

    Like you, I’m troubled by the Beck/Fox News/talk radio “devotion,” which folks seem to fail to remember is mostly entertainment. Levin’s book–which I’ve only skimmed–isn’t an articulate/serious enough “manifesto” for the tea partiers to get behind. I’m not sure if there presently is a Buckley of sorts that can pen something that would serve to link together congenial political ideals. But perhaps one will come. We’ll see.

  3. I agree with you that Levin’s book is not as deep or thorough as it should have been, especially in calling the epilogue a “manifesto.” Of course, I confess, while in the short term, I’d be glad to see so-called “conservatives” in American wrest power from the people currently in charge, my problem is that, in the long term, I see that effort as fruitless. At the end of the day, I find that the principles that develop out of “the Enlightenment” are just incredibly problematic; have you read Dr. Benjamin Wiker’s Ten Books That Screwed Up the World by any chance? It is by no means comprehensive, but it lays out an effective, traditional Christian case against the foundational texts of modern society.

    I think the results of elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts only prove that people are angry; whether that anger is rooted in people’s realization of having been manipulated, or is simply the product of the president not being able to deliver on his promise of being all things to all men, I’ve yet to see. I agree with you, wholeheartedly, on the failure of the “Reagan Revolution”; Buckely said of the co-opting of the movement by the neocons that it was rather like the town whore finding religion. Everyone rejoiced with her at her conversion, but when she started telling the pastor what to say in his sermons, matters had gone too far. (That’s a paraphrase, but not much of one.)

    A few days ago, on his radio show, Neil Boortz said that he thinks things have gotten so far out of hand that what we really need to straighten things out (quickly) is a benevolent dictator. I happen to agree, but the problem with any dictator is that when you think you’ve found a Cincinnatus, more often than not, you’ve found a very good Julius Caesar. I know of few men who would be willing to go back to farming after wielding raw political power; but perhaps I am judging all men by my own weakness.

    This sounds so ultimately hopeless, and that’s not really a true reflection of my point of view here; I’m just skeptical and wary, and don’t want to be burned by what might end up being just another fad in the ever-changing culture machine in America. But, I’ll raise my afternoon glass of Russian black in silent salute to the tea parties…and pray that God’s will be done.

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