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A Tea Party in Need of Context

Washington State Capitol OlympiaSince early 2009, the Tea Party as a movement has carved out a substantial place in electoral politics and the general political conversation. Yet for a movement that has garnered so much attention and notoriety, its actual effects have been a bit underwhelming. Tea Party Republicans in the House and Senate worked furiously first to overturn Obamacare and then to defund it, to no avail. Animosity over Obamacare and spending levels eventually led to the impasse that resulted in the shutdown of our government last year and a near-constant continuing threat that our federal government will simply stop functioning. The Tea Party’s goals are admirable, but their actual results so far are lackluster, and this will continue unless they articulate a broader vision for society.

Strategically speaking, the Tea Party initially made a mistake by plunging into a war-like bunker mentality that inevitably led to standoffs with President Obama and Democrats in Congress. They underestimated the Democrats’ ability to make the Tea Party look like the uncooperative guilty party. Neither side compromised, but Democrats won many of the battles for public perception. But the Tea Party has a bigger problem than strategy or failed policy – it lacks context, and this will cripple its long-term political impact. Its greatest weakness is its almost-exclusive focus on limiting government and reducing spending (look at any of the major Tea Party websites for proof – limited government and lower spending are front and center). These are great goals that gel with conservative principles, but without a broader political and moral context, these goals ring hollow.

The Tea Party’s approach is understandable. Most conservatives believe in limited government and a free market, and the expansive spending of Republicans in the recent past has frustrated many conservative voters. Washington no longer represented the interests of a vast swath of American conservatives, so naturally these citizens want to push back. Conservatives have a right to be frustrated and many find the “back-to-basics” Tea Party style refreshing. Unfortunately, simply advocating for less government and lower taxes is not enough – it lacks the robust approach of traditional conservatism.

“Limited government” as a concept provides no idea of what a properly-ordered society ought to look like. It is a “no” without a “yes,” and this “no” leaves you wondering, just what kind of government does a Tea Party representative believe in? After all, we elect our representatives to govern wisely and cooperatively – not simply to oppose government action.

The Tea Party would do well to articulate a more compelling, more complete view of American society. Conservatism is about much more than limited government and lower taxes. It centers on a humble respect for the beliefs and values of the past with a prudent hesitancy towards new schemes, it believes in freedom defined by virtue, and it trusts the small and local more than the large and national. Ideas like limited government and lower taxes are mere applications of more important root conservative ideas. Unfortunately, the public face of the Tea Party often presents these applications as the core ideas, and their supporters are left with a seasoning of policy positions with no philosophical meat.

If limited government and lower spending are your core principles, the political playing field is reduced to two players: the government and the individual. In this arena, it’s the freedom-loving individual vs. the power-hungry government. But true freedom is not achieved by making government impotent.

Real freedom will only be obtained through a society full of strong institutions: strong families, strong churches, strong community organizations, and yes, even strong governments. Each institution has its proper sphere of authority, and a particular role to play in forming a just society.

To be truly free, this properly-ordered society must then be populated by virtuous people. As Tocqueville declared, “[Liberty] considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.” Freedom is not the mere absence of coercion. Freedom is defined in its relation to the duties of virtue, rooted in Christian principles. Conservative statesman Edmund Burke warned against any society that defines freedom as the absence of coercion:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsel of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Traditionally, conservatives, like Burke, have embraced duty, virtue, and a rich variety of authorities. The individual-vs.-the-government approach is relatively new and, sadly, indicates that we have lost much ground to the Progressive movement’s view of society. After all, it is progressives who love to see society as composed of individuals and the government – they just trust the government to care for the individuals.

Most conservatives (myself included) find a lot to like in the Tea Party’s work for limited government and free markets, but until the movement espouses and communicates a broader philosophical framework for its policy positions, it will fail to find long-term success. With the mid-term elections coming up, the Tea Party needs to consider whether it will make a change. As it stands now, neither its policies nor its principles will transform our culture without an articulation of what a just society really looks like.


Zachary Gappa is Managing Editor at the John Jay Institute Center for a Just Society and Operations Manager at Gappa Security Solutions.
  • Soliloquized

    “but until the movement espouses and communicates a broader philosophical framework for its policy positions, it will fail to find long-term success.”

    Translation into everyday language please, though I suspect I know the meaning.

  • goral

    The Tea Party is a party within a party so by default they ride the same party platform with the added emphasis on limited spending and gov’t. What’s hard to understand about that?
    Furthermore, strong gov’t and strong individual rights with all that it encompasses, are mutually exclusive.

  • Struble

    The fundamental mistake was for the Tea Party to let itself become an appendage to the Republican Party. Both major parties have devolved into plutocratic machines which despise the first three words in the Constitution — We the People.

    • goral

      I don’t think, at this time in our history, the formation of a viable
      third party is possible. We haven’t yet suffered enough. The Democrat
      party is beyond redemption. They have the power of the public purse and
      they are using it to solidify their Marxist predisposition. The
      Republicans have become the rubber stamp, tanning salon party, only too
      anxious to be identified with the plutocrats. They can be redeemed by
      the Tea Party types. There are huge obstacles to overcome. First is the
      marxist media, then we have the courts who thwart the public will at
      every turn and finally, quite possibly, most importantly is the
      principle that we the people have become we the sheeple. This allows the
      Wolf Blitzer types to pretty much have their way.

      • Soliloquized

        The only obstacle to overcome is human selfishness.

        I’m in a “union”, and by nature and by literal use of the word, union is a bringing together, to unite as one. But no one in the union anymore cares about the others, they want to maximize what benefits they can derive from the company without concern for the others.

        If people realized that the democrats have consistently failed to perform, that what they say and what the do are miles apart, and vote accordingly, they could cripple the democrats, hopefully allowing the Republicans to gain control, and even better, these Republicans would be of the Tea Party persuasion.

        A crippling of the democrats would bring reform to their party. I always laugh when some nit-wit newscaster cites the varying opinions in the Republican party as being indicative of disharmony. In actuality, it’s the norm for human behavior and the way that politicians are supposed to lead, namely by representing the people that elected them and not the party.

        The outcome of every issue should not be as easy as determining which party has more seats, it should be thrilling, debate leading to a vote, and we’d all sit at the edge of our seats awaiting the outcome. But it’s much simplier than that. The democrat party despises private firearm ownership, loves to terminate the lives of unborn babies, hates Judaism and Christianity, and blindly support gays on each and every issue.

        So, if you’re Jewish, Christian, Pro-Life, Pro-Conventional Marriage, and Pro-Second Amendment, with the exception of local elections, your finger should never again select a democrat until their voting records reflect the will of the electorates and not the party.

        But some of us keep voting for them, after all they promise us the world, BUT THEY NEVER DELIVER. Folks, they offer lies, they offer broken families, they offer destroyed lives. Forget about what they say they will do, know them for what they are really doing.

        The Tea Party wants a return to Constitutional Law, as Americans, we should want this as Christians would want a return to adherence to the 10 Commandments.

        • goral

          Such good points and so much truth but alas, it will fall on barren ground. We have become a sterile nation. A nation of patriotic, noble souls would have sent the Chicago thug packing, packing for jail time, that is.
          The KGB thug delivered. He gave his nation a successful Olympics. He gave the world a spectacle of normal, wholesome people. All the misfits were relegated to the outer limits. We were spared the confessions of an athlete getting a thrill up his leg in the men’s locker room.
          We were spared pictures of skin heads and demonic rock. What a nice change that was. The closing ceremony didn’t show two guys holding hands and wardrobe failures, instead we saw and heard children singing and ballerinas dancing. Nothing but class.
          The only thing our thug delivered so far is national division, misery and failures. What a pathetically impotent and complacent people we’ve become.
          We must, have to make an abrupt change, this year.

    • Soliloquized

      Amen!