Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Tea Party Movement - A Progress Report

The Tea Party Movement has entered its second year, and there is no shortage of opinions as to what, exactly, it stands for. Attempts to paint the movement as an “AstroTurf” extension of GOP “operatives” flopped under the weight of the evidence. Leaving aside the irrelevant cranks and their smears of “racism” and the like, it is now seen for what it is – a massive, peaceful grass roots uprising whose members have something to say. The NJ Star-Ledger's Mark DiIonno makes this point, calling the movement “largely a non-violent, grassroots movement in the great American tradition of criticizing government.” It’s about ideas, but what ideas?

The fact is, the Tea Party Movement can’t be narrowed down to a single issue or two. But the general direction it will take is beginning to come into focus. Significantly, that focus is being sharpened not by some charismatic voice – the movement is still leaderless – but by the same grass roots source from which it sprang.

So we should turn to real live Tea Partyers themselves. Tea Party Patriots, which boasts many heavyweight sponsors, has recently hosted a “debate” for Tea Partyers nationwide. Participants were asked to submit a list of ten points that they believe should define the movement. The top ten suggestions became what is called the Contract From America, a manifesto derived directly from grassroots America.

What I see is very encouraging. The contract page states:

“The Contract from America serves as a clarion call for those who recognize the importance of free market principles, limited government, and individual liberty.”

When I read the Contract, one thing that struck me is that which is not on the list. The social agenda of the Religious Right – bans on abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage, to name a few – is conspicuous for its absence. This is a very healthy sign for the future of the movement.

To be sure, the main themes of “Individual Liberty, Limited Government, and Economic Freedom” are rather weak in their definitions. Under Individual Liberty, we are told that our “liberties [rights?] are inherent, not granted by our government.” Good so far, but undercut by the admonition against “excessive control over our economic choices.” How does one define excessive? Even Obama would claim to be against “excessive regulations”. Limited Government is not bad, but could be more clear. “The purpose of our government”, or any government, is to protect individual rights. The idea that government must “exercise only those limited powers that have been relinquished to it by the people” is an important constitutional principle but is only a means to that end. Economic Freedom is the weakest, relying on the utilitarian argument that free markets merely work best. Economic freedom is the corollary of the moral concept of individual rights, and means the separation of economics and state. These must be clearly articulated.

The action agenda is a mixed bag. Here is my brief take on the ten point agenda:

1. Doesn’t account for the Constitution’s weaknesses. For example, like the “commerce clause” that authorizes the federal government to “regulate” economic activity between the states, the call for freedom “from excessive control” is an opening wedge of statism.

2. Basically OK

3. OK, but government borrowing is not the real problem, the level of spending is. And I question the use of a constitutional amendment.

4. Although I favor repeal, this is good. A flat tax would be much better than what we have now, and more moral.

5. This is perhaps the most dangerous to our cause. A “Blue Ribbon taskforce” has always been an excuse to do nothing. Worse, shifting federal “agencies and programs [down to] the states or local authorities” is no answer to big government. Tyranny at any level is bad. “Assessing their Constitutionality” presupposes an assessment of how our constitution has been watered down and torn from its original purpose of protecting the individual from the government. In our current confused state, strict adherence to the constitution is not enough. A full-fledged, knock-down ideological battle over constitutional principles is called for.

6. No arbitrary formula will work. Runaway spending is a consequence of our lack of respect for individual rights, especially property rights.

7. Good. Must be expanded into a comprehensive, principled plan that ultimately examines every government intrusion into American medicine from Medicare to the FDA.

8. Bad. The best policy is no policy. Get the government out of the way, and leave energy producers free to produce whatever energy they can for whatever their customers will buy, consistent with the government’s role as a rights-protector.

9. See point 6.

10. A good short-term political goal to shoot for. Simple, straightforward, and good economics.

The Contract is vague and focused on non-essentials, and is flawed in many respects. What the Tea Party needs to understand is that compromise is the enemy of its goals. This is something that the Left long ago grasped. They are steadfastly consistent in upholding the “right” of the have-nots to drain the haves, with all that that implies. They lecture Republicans and conservatives about “bipartisanship”, accuse them of “polarizing”, and warn them against being “ideologues” – even as they themselves cleave uncompromisingly to the essential tenets of collectivism. Their current leader, Barack Obama, preaches the gospel of altruism loudly, proudly, and with full certainty that he can get away with it.

Republicans and conservatives swallow this claptrap, and end up compromising on anything. The Democrats give a little legislative ground, throw a bone to the GOP, and almost always end up moving the ball further toward the goal line of socialism. This is how a century of ever-growing statism has whittled away at our freedom. The Tea Party Movement has the potential to end this charade. Embedded within it is the one faction with the philosophical firepower to stand up to the Left – the Objectivists. Objectivists won’t compromise on their ironclad adherence to ethical egoism, individualism, the proper function of government, laissez-faire capitalism, and the belief in the ability and the political and moral right of every person to run and take responsibility for his own life and to pursue his own happiness. Christian conservatives, economic conservatives, libertarians, and all other Tea Party factions must ultimately be won over to Objectivist principles if the TPM is to succeed in turning the statist trend. Like America’s original radicals, the Founding Fathers, Objectivists know that compromise on basic moral principles will be the death knell for their cause. The Left knows this as well. The rest of the Tea Party must learn it, too. I believe they can and, ultimately, will.

My criticism of the Contract From America here is constructive. The flaws in this Contract are fixable. The goals the contract strives for are laudable. But the only way to cohere the Contract into an effective message is to anchor all of its components to common fundamental principles. The principle of individual rights and a government limited by that idea; the epistemological and moral underpinnings of individual rights (reason and egoism); the view of man as an autonomous individual with his own life as an end it itself and not as his brothers’ keeper; the sole and proper function of government as a rights protector; etc., are loosely implied but not explicitly articulated. This is a must.

Despite its shortcomings, the fledgling Tea Party Movement (TPM) is maturing nicely, as we move into Year 2. The secular focus is a good and surprising development, considering the Christian Right’s attempts to hijack it. If it can keep its secular focus, there is a huge opportunity to keep the movement alive, expanding, and on the correct course, while steering the movement toward the right fundamental ideas. The Contract is a good starting point, and leaves the road open to mold, correct, and expand it into a more philosophically focused manifesto. This is vital to the long-term viability of the movement and its effectiveness in evolving into a potent political force. If the TPM is to “fundamentally change the United States of America” for the better (to borrow Obama’s phrase), it must sharpen it message and zero in on fundamental principles.

Although the Left fantasizes about sabotaging the TPM, and despite smear tactics such as Bill Clinton’s sneaky equivocation of Tea Partyers to the anarcho-terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the biggest threat to it comes from the Religious Right, which hopes to gain dominance over the movement. This would destroy it. Religious conservatives claim a hefty portion of the TPM: almost half, by some estimates. They have a right to their opinions, and to advocate their cause through persuasion and their free speech rights. Indeed, the right to pursue and uphold one's values is a key American principle that the Tea Party exists to defend. But the stated goal of Religious Right activists is to impose their rights-violating social agenda by law...i.e., by force. So far, they have not succeeded. They must not be allowed to.

This is not at all a call to excommunicate pro-capitalist, pro-American Christians from the movement. It is a call to keep the rights-violating Christian activist social agenda out of it, because otherwise the Tea Party would disintegrate. If our only answer to the statist Left is to replace it with our own brand of statism, then I and most Tea Partyers are out. The TPM is a movement of, by, and for Independents (regardless of the official party affiliation). Independents, who represent America’s largest political block and who have turned against the Obama Democrats en mass, are best characterized as economically conservative and socially liberal. Independents don’t want government telling them what to do with their property or their bodies, who they can buy what products from or who they can marry.

As we await, hope for and fight for that central philosophical message the Tea Party Movement so desperately needs, the question remains: Is there any unifying message or symbol that can accurately define the Tea Party Movement as it currently stands, and characterizes all of its disparate elements? Yes, I believe there is. Some 235 years ago, as the Revolutionary War got under way, the American rattlesnake emerged as the symbol of defiance and rebellion, culminating in the creation of the Gadsden Flag. If there is one thing that permeates the entire movement, it is the feeling that we are being pushed around, and we want it to stop. Tea Partyers are overwhelmingly fearful of a government that has broken free of its constitutional and moral constraints. This is why the Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”), the symbol of the American Revolution, fits the current TPM so well.

The TPM is a powerful phenomenon. Make no mistake about that. It is much, much bigger than the number of active marchers who attend the rallies. Almost everyone I talk to these days - and I am around a lot of trade union types – is fearful of the direction the country is taking. That fear centers around not merely the economy (which is beginning to improve), but the generally growing government control of our lives. Most people I talk to are aligned with the spirit of the movement, whether they know it consciously or not. There are tens of millions of Americans who silently sympathize with the Tea Party activists. This is the insignia of successful national course-altering movements – a small group of vocal activists backed by widespread popular support.

The first political tests of the strength of the TPM occurred with the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections followed by the Massachusetts shocker. This year’s mid-term elections will be a much bigger test. I expect the coming midterms to be a firm confirmation of its strength, with the Republican Party being the big beneficiary. How the GOP responds to their anticipated big gains will be a test of their party’s relevance. Will they finally stand on free market principles? Or will it be another hollow “victory”, the final nail in their sorry compromising coffin? The answer to those questions will determine if the Tea Party needs to evolve into a genuine Third Political Party.

The Tea Party Movement could be, I suspect, the beginning of a second American Revolution. There are too many Americans who will not sit idly by any longer as their freedom steadily erodes. Just as with the Revolutionaries who fought for and created this nation, the Tea Party represents perhaps 1/3 to ½ of the population. But just as the Revolutionaries succeeded, so can we – if, like our forebears, we cast off the poison of compromise and adhere to our principles. This nation will not be allowed to slide down the well-worn path to tyranny previously taken by the collectivist hellholes of the 20th century – not without a fight.

The unified rebellion I foresaw developing under a statist Obama Administration continues to exceed my expectations. As of this writing, I can say that the TPM is shaping up to be the first significant resistance to the socialist/statist trend that began a century ago. Obama's declared intention to fundamentally change America may succeed in a way that he could not have envisioned. His aggressive statism may, repeat may, be like a "blowoff top" that signals the end of a stock bull market, represent the terminal stage of the long trend toward dictatorship. Most importantly, it is being led, not by prominent political or intellectual leaders, but literally by we the people. From the TPM we will see emerge, hopefully, the necessary political leadership as the movement continues to evolve. That can only happen when it is understood that ideas determine political direction.

Slowly, those ideas are re-emerging from America's revolutionary past.

Long live the Tea Party Movement, and:

Long Live Lady Liberty!

1 comment:

Prometheus said...

Great article, Mike. Your analysis of the Contract from America is spot on.