What Happened to the Tea Party?

“Free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government” – such were the values of the Tea Party Movement when it spread across the United States in early 2009, and such are the values which the Republican voters have repeatedly rejected throughout the 2012 primary process. With the exception of libertarian and last-place candidate Ron Paul who commits his own considerable set of errors, Republicans have systematically eliminated all candidates whose policies shared even a slight resemblance to those of the Tea Party. True though it may be that former candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain had notable issues in their policy stances – such as avid social conservatism and past support of the TARP bailouts, respectively – the alternatives they left behind are so visibly distant from the core values of economic liberty within the Tea Party that one is tempted to take after Ayn Rand’s example in 1980 and simply vote for none of the candidates at all.

Examine the Republicans still left in the race: Mitt Romney is the epitome of philosophic pragmatism, adhering to no values in particular except those of whichever crowd he happens to be addressing. The welfare statism he staunchly supported during his senatorial run against Ted Kennedy and during his governorship in Massachusetts is all but a memory of “old Romney” – Romney 2.0 would never support such things, at least not outside of the “state level.”

Newt Gingrich, the candidate some commentators have described as a “vindictive teddy bear” who only stays in the race to spite other candidates rather win the nomination even he knows is unattainable, is equally pathetic. Any man who sits on a couch with Nancy Pelosi and preaches about the importance of green energy should be roundly laughed out of the race, as should any man who offered even the mildest financial advice to destructive GSOs like Fannie Mae. The budget “surplus” produced under his watch as Speaker of the House is all the more contemptible, as it was achieved by doing nothing more than that which previous Congresses had done already, if only more consistently: taking money from FICA entitlements like Social Security to finance the regular budget.

Perhaps worse than either Romney or Gingrich was Rick Santorum, a man who based his now former campaign off the “holier than thou” persona he erected for himself while ignoring serious issues in past senatorial votes. I must give credit to the man for voting against Medicare Part D in 2003, but his votes for policies such as No Child Left Behind, the USA PATRIOT Act (several times over), raising the debt ceiling, and a federal marriage amendment are unacceptable. How, exactly, is it that a man with so many big government votes can still be portrayed as the small government candidate? There is really only one appropriate answer I can give to that question: who is John Galt?

Even Ron Paul, whose only hope in winning the nomination now rests on the unlikely chance of a brokered convention going in his favor, supports shockingly dangerous positions in the realm of foreign affairs. Admirable though his congressional record may be on domestic issues, particularly economic ones, asserting that Iran has the right to acquire a nuclear bomb – no, that we should let Iran acquire a nuclear bomb – boggles the mind and truly stretches the boundaries of what an acceptable foreign policy looks like, if indeed it is even acceptable at all. The level of evasion necessary to place Iran on the same moral plane as the United States as a trader rather than a brute – irrespective of any alleged nuclear ambitions, actualized or not – is massive, and it is a level of evasion which most Republican voters are unwilling to overlook. Make no mistake, neither the media nor what is often referred to as the Republican Establishment is at fault for Congressman Paul’s low poll numbers – it is his own foreign policy.

So what happened? How did a race which began with so much promise degenerate into a repeat of the 2008 primary? Right down to the policies of the top two of the remaining viable candidates (Romney and Santorum before he withdrew), the 2012 Republican primary is turning into a carbon copy of the McCain-Huckabee battle from four years ago. Moreover, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives appears to have done little to reverse the expansion of the federal government since the 2010 midterm.

It is all too easy to attribute both the unfortunate state of the 2012 primary and the various statist policies passed by the House of Representatives in spite of the 2010 midterms on the Tea Party, the principal force in American politics in recent years. For those who had, and hopefully still have, positive expectations of the Tea Party, the failures over recent years may seem like a failure of the Tea Party itself – a disintegration of the coalition and of the principles on which it was built.

This analysis is absolutely and unequivocally incorrect for two fundamental reasons. First, it fails to correctly identify the actual membership of the Tea Party – there have been many politicians and activists who wrap themselves in the Gadsden flag without taking the economic stances of the Tea Party to heart, or else they simply dwell on issues outside of the Tea Party’s economic focus. Second, it equates the failures in Washington and in the Republican Party with a failure of the Tea Party, two things which are not equitable.

As for the first point, many people have complained about the “establishment takeover” of the Tea Party. Progressive Republicans, they argue, have coopted the Tea Party, gained its favor, and have been able to weed out legitimate Tea Party candidates in the process. Or, if they are not the typical progressive Republicans like Sen. John McCain or Sen. Scott Brown (the latter being an example of an early “Tea Party” victory), they are members of the religious far right, such as Santorum, who would forgo any of the economic liberties supported by the Tea Party to see their religious social values implemented as law.

Naturally, such politicians and preachers have their supporters, often being the same individuals who enthusiastically show up to Tea Party rallies chanting such slogans as “principle over party” and “no more compromise candidates.” Those same individuals who claim to wholeheartedly support the idea of truly free markets, of balanced government budgeting, and of the limited republican system maintained by our country’s system of federal and state constitutions also have few qualms, if any, in supporting candidates who pass economic regulations, who increase our nation’s debt, and who ignore some of the fundamental tenets within our nation’s various constitutions, particularly the federal Constitution. In turn, these individuals are treated as accurate representations of Tea Partiers. Without consistency and without principle, these Coffee Drinkers besmirch the reputation of the Tea Party amongst other liberty-minded individuals and relegate the Tea Party to the status of nothing more than an unprincipled Republican Party offshoot.

However, these individuals are not Tea Partiers and should not be identified as such. As already stated, the appropriate term for them is “Coffee Drinkers.” Coffee Drinkers are distinguished from the Tea Partiers not by the manner in which they involve themselves in politics, noting how both often attend the same events and participate in the same activities, but by their differing levels of commitment to the convictions of the Tea Party.  Unlike the actual Tea Partiers who truly stand by their tripartite mantra of “free markets, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government,” Coffee Drinkers merely go through the charades of the other Tea Partiers under the assumption that they are participating in something “big” and that they are “helping out” what they consider to be the “conservative cause.” Coffee Drinkers get the proverbial “kick” from attending the rallies, waving the flags, and chanting the slogans, but they crash shortly after when it comes to any sort of principled action – such is what was observed in the actions of many freshmen Congressmen after the 2010 election.

Some may object, arguing that I am artificially defining the two groups such that they appear separate when in fact they are one in the same. These objections are of no value, and they seek to do nothing more than turn the concept of the Tea Partier into an anti-concept – shapeless, meaningless, and useless. Whereas concepts are ideas which integrate all possible concretes that belong in a given, epistemologically cohesive classification, anti-concepts are ideas which artificially integrate distinctly dissimilar concretes such that they are treated as equivalents. This causes anti-concepts to be understood only vaguely, granting skilled rhetoricians the ability to manipulate an audience through nothing more than imprecise terms. When some libertarians of the subjectivist tradition express anti-Tea Party sentiment and point to the errors of the “Tea Party,” they are really identifying those individuals who are not actual Tea Partiers, thus lumping them in the same group as legitimate Tea Partiers. The same error is committed by those on the left who speak of strong and dangerous trends of social conservatism in the “Tea Party” when, in fact, the ideology of the Tea Party specifically ignores such issues. The point at which the word “Tea Party” becomes an anti-concept is the point at which its opponents can destroy the Tea Party simply by speaking of it, failing to distinguish between the Coffee Drinkers and the actual Tea Partiers.

But who am I to define the principles of the Tea Party, you ask? I didn’t – the Tea Party did so itself. On Tax Day 2010, I took the time to actually attend one of the Tea Party events in Augusta, GA. Various speakers and onlookers of undoubtedly various political backgrounds attended the rally, but one common theme remained constant throughout the event: that the government is too big, it is spending too much, that it is interfering with our inability to make and keep our money, and that all this needs to stop. There was talk of taxes, of the insolvency Social Security and Medicare, of spending, of government regulation, of Obamacare, and of many other topics – discussions of gay marriage, of abortion, and of support for policies which would grant more authority to the federal government were conspicuously absent. The focus of those present was not on the country returning to the Bible, but of it returning to the Constitution. These are the principles of the true Tea Party.

Moreover, the Tea Party groups themselves have explicitly adopted the doctrine which I have already outlined several times. A quick Google search of “free markets fiscal responsibility constitutionally limited government” brings up ten results on the first page, seven of which specifically have the words “Tea Party” in their titles, two of which are articles expressing support for the Tea Party and these principles, and the last being the Pennsylvania Liberty Alliance (a group established under the auspices of Glenn Beck’s own derivative of Tea Party known as the “9/12 Project”). True, the ideology of the Tea Party is an incomplete one – as of yet, there is no underlying philosophy to its outward political values. Though individuals like Beck have attempted to develop that philosophy through programs like the 9/12 Project – a political program that attempts to defend the principles of the Tea Party through a united front of religion and secular individual rights (though the latter is the only one necessary, let alone appropriate in a country which separates church and state) – the Tea Party itself has not accepted any unified philosophy beneath its political superstructure. If the Tea Party is to withstand America’s current political climate and achieve true success, then developing its philosophy is a necessity, and that philosophy must rest on man’s right to his own life, as based on man’s teleological ultimate value: his own life. For now, however, the Tea Partiers – true Tea Partiers – practice the expressed political values as I have described them; those who do not practice said values should not be included under the banner of the Tea Party.

The second complaint against the Tea Party stems from the current condition of American politics. It is no secret that the Republican Party has been the party of “me too” for the greater part of the Twentieth Century. If the Tea Party is the party of “no” as Democrats have described them, than the Republicans are the party of “yes, but not so quickly.” Rather than defending capitalism and individual rights forthrightly, the Republicans and the right in general have, by progressive default, slowly accepted premise after premise, conclusion after conclusion from the left. Because they were unable or unwilling to defend capitalism as such – and because they were not willing to accept the more consistent kinds of socialism offered by the left – they allowed the United States to decay into a system of, in the words of Andrew Bernstein, “half-assed socialism.” This is the system we have today.

However, the failures of the Republican Party cannot be directly ascribed to the Tea Party itself. The philosophy of the Republican Party is perhaps the most ill-defined of any modern political group, amalgamating numerous otherwise disagreeable groups of people under a single partisan label. Rather than having an affirmative message around which its members can rally (as with the Tea Party), the Republican Party has built its misfit coalition around nothing more than the notion that they are “anti-Democrat.” Though the Democrats themselves are also a diverse ideological group, their political platform centers around the idea of “more government.” The Republicans merely push for “less government than the Democrats,” which does not actually translate into less government. As a consequence, all individuals who desire less government than the Democrats – conservative Progressives, the religious right, libertarians, Tea Partiers, capitalists, Reagan conservatives, Goldwater conservatives, etc. – are more likely to identify themselves with the Republicans than the Democrats.

“Republican” is an anti-concept. The term itself carries only vague ideological significance, conveying nothing but an unclear assumption about that which is being addressed. The policy positions of any ideological subset of the Republican Party can, therefore, be incorrectly ascribed to the Republican Party as a whole, making them “Republican” policies. By extension, those other individuals in the Republican Party who may disagree vehemently with said policies are left debating superficialities – whose “Republican” policies are “true Republican” policies.

In any case, all those who fall under the Republican banner are at risk of being classified as a supporter of whatever “Republican” policies are referenced in any given situation. If Sen. John McCain supports the immediate deployment of US forces to Syria, it becomes possible – by nature of the word “Republican” – to argue that Republicans support armed intervention in Syria. Oppositely, Sen. Rand Paul staunchly opposes the use of the US military in Syria, making it possible to simultaneously say that Republicans do not support armed intervention in Syria. Does it depend on which Republicans are being referenced? Absolutely, to a rational and actively thoughtful audience, but not to those who desire to paint the whole with the policies of a subset of that whole, nor to those who are unaware of the epistemic trick being played before their very eyes – such is why I identify myself solely as a capitalist.

This is the trick being played by those who argue that the failures of the Republican Party are failures of the Tea Party. Being not an actual political party itself – meaning it does not nominate and run political candidates exclusively under its own banner – the Tea Party merely employs the existing structure of the Republican Party to get its ideological adherents into office. The Tea Party, however, is not identical to the Republican Party. As already explained, there are plenty of politicians who would like to (and have done so, to an extent) successfully ride the coattails of the Tea Party into office, dubbing the 2010 midterms the “Tea Party Takeover.”

But 2010 was not a “Tea Party Takeover” of the government and, for the most part, it wasn’t even a Republican takeover. The Republicans gained control of one chamber of one branch of the government – hardly enough to place the blame for our government’s policies squarely on the Republican Party (though they certainly deserve some blame, noting the various bills which have still slipped through the House over recent months). Moreover, the number of lawmakers that consider themselves part of the Tea Party are but a fraction of that one branch, and those that are actually part of the Tea Party are but a fraction of a fraction.

Certainly, the Tea Party has been a very vocal, influential fraction, despite the low number of seats that its members hold. After all, the debt ceiling debate over the summer of 2011 was a heated yet inspiring event, noting how Tea Party forces appeared, for a time, capable of whipping much of their party into line with Tea Party principles. Unfortunately, this ultimately did not prevent the inevitable increase in the debt ceiling as the Coffee Drinkers and other Republicans folded, achieving nothing. As the Republicans pleaded for forgiveness from the voters who had elected them, the Tea Party as an ideologically distinct entity was ignored. Instead, the Tea Partiers were simultaneously and unjustifiably attacked from the left for causing the entire hiccup in Washington’s usually smooth march toward statism and from their own supporters under the assumption that they had retracted from their principles with Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the Republicans.

Damn the fact that the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected any budgets that bore even a distant semblance to Tea Party policies. Damn the fact that President Obama threatened to veto any substantive cuts. Damn the fact that the Tea Party was at odds with both the Democrats and their own party. None of that mattered – the Tea Party was to blame, as it has been on various other occasions throughout 2011 and early 2012. These criticisms are unfair and they are unreasonable, but they are present and they are powerful.

So what is the Tea Party to do? Clearly the Tea Party is not guilty of the faults ascribed to it, at least not those with which other liberty-minded individuals have charged it – the criticisms of the left, however, are more often compliments of the Tea Party’s virtues rather than complaints of its faults. But even today, the Tea Party suffers from its perceived association with Coffee Drinkers and other Republicans, an association which is no more real than the association of capitalists with anarchists or libertarians.

According to some, the solution for the Tea Party is to sever itself from the Republican Party. A third party movement, they argue, would avoid many of the problems under the current system, instead allowing the Tea Party to stand on nothing more or less than its own principles. To this suggestion, I want to give extreme caution and admonish strongly against it.

America’s political system is not favorable, not even slightly, to third party movements. Throughout the course of US history, there has been not one third party movement which gained enough support to enter a state of prominence in federal politics, and this should be unsurprising. The election laws currently on the books, joined with the (not inaccurate) presupposition of most Americans that third party candidates just cannot win, make for a virtually insurmountable obstacle. In all but few elections, a vote for a third party is nothing more than an act of protest (not that such acts are entirely unjustifiable, just that one should not usually assume that a vote for a third party candidate is likely to push him to victory).

Such protests have demonstrated their effectiveness, however. When a third party draws enough votes away from the usual constituents of one of the larger parties, the slighted party attempts to integrate the dissenters into its membership.  Take, for instance, the various presidential runs made by Eugene V. Debs in the early Twentieth Century on behalf of the Socialist Party. Naturally, the Democrats suffered a loss in support, and systematically altered their platform to be more agreeable to the supporters of the Socialist Party – the result was Woodrow Wilson. The same applies to the Republican Party as affected by the Progressive Party run made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. The eventual, though slower, result of such a shift was Herbert Hoover.

Regardless, the Tea Party and its supporters should rule out this option – why try to affect the platform of a party externally when one is already inside said party? Rather than sit and listen to the nonsense about the “Establishment” having coopted their own movement, Tea Partiers should actively engage in trying to coopt the Republican Party. Again, the Republican Party lacks a clearly defined philosophy – a philosophy which the Tea Party could potentially give it. Through the continued involvement in the lower rungs of the Republican Party, Tea Partiers have the opportunity to change the Republican Party from the ground up, converting the other Republicans or, at the very least, getting them to toe a new partisan line.

Sadly, one cannot give that which one does not have. Before the Tea Party can produce lasting change in the Republican Party, it must first develop its own philosophy. Though the outward political stances of the Tea Party are certainly an immense achievement in and of themselves, they lack any foundation from which the Tea Partiers can defend them. It will do little good in the long run if Tea Partiers support the correct principles but stammer themselves into silence when asked to defend those positions. The tired appeals to tradition, religion, the sanctity of the family, the depravity of man, and any other usual conservative “defense” of capitalism range from being philosophically insufficient to dangerously contradictory with professed Tea Party values, and they should be abandoned.

Instead, the Tea Partiers should learn that the proper defense of their politics lies in their very nature as men and in the nature of reality in which they reside. By the very fact that a man lives, he can determine that his life is his own ultimate value; that to pursue his own life, he must be free to pursue it; that the ultimate value of every other man is his own life, and that they too must be free to pursue that value; that to interfere with another man’s pursuit of his life is to contradict and deny the conditions necessary to pursue his own; that he can discover all of this through the use of his faculty of reason; that he can use his reason to objectively comprehend the reality in which he lives; that his comprehension of reality allows him to choose those actions that pursue his ultimate value; that the political extension of all these principles is capitalism, and nothing less.

As for the issue of maintaining a distinction between the Tea Partiers, the Coffee Drinkers, and the Republicans, it will resolve itself if the Tea Party fully develops its philosophy. Through consistency and repetition, the Tea Party will distinguish itself from those false prophets in its own ranks and from the conservative failures within the Republican Party as a whole. The Tea Party need not accept the unjust mischaracterizations of its policies and membership, nor should it. Rather, through exemplary integrity and vocal denunciations of those things for which the Tea Party does not stand, there will be no ground left from its opponents can attack it.

Ideally, the Tea Party should begin its own philosophic enlightenment now so that it may better respond to the coming results of the 2012 election cycle, whatever those results may be. If the Republicans win the Senate and the White House, the need for the Tea Party will be greater than ever – that will be the true test of its longevity and effectiveness. The strength of a political movement such as the Tea Party should not be measured primarily on its ability to argue against statist politicians on the other side of the aisle, but by its willingness to do the same to politicians within its own party. If President Obama wins a second term, the need for a staunch, rational opposition movement needs no extra emphasis here.

Can it be done? Of course. Will it be done? That’s the real question. The continually high sales of Atlas Shrugged are certainly an encouraging sight, but there is more to a philosophic revolution than that. Few men after a certain age – usually their late teens – are willing to truly reexamine their entire philosophic system, let alone alter it. Moreover, there needs to be a corresponding cultural change – a shift in man’s intellectual and aesthetic focus away from the products of the numerous irrational philosophies present in America today toward the production and enjoyment of a new culture, one built on a rational philosophy with man’s life as his own moral purpose. Such change will not be easy for the Tea Party or anyone else, and it will be a long process, but, for the time being, perhaps reading Atlas Shrugged is the perfect place to start.


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