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A Big Tent on the Right

The multiplier effect of adding Tea Partiers to social ­conservatives.

Sep 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 01 • By JEFFREY BELL
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What will historians 50 years from now see as the most important development in American politics of the past 40 years​—the period roughly encompassing the years 1970 to 2010? I believe it is the rise of two movements that between them are likely to alter the balance of political power in this country: the social conservative movement, which by most estimates began in the 1970s, and the Tea Party movement, which we can date very precisely as having begun on February 19, 2009. That was the day a business reporter named Rick Santelli delivered, rather suddenly and to the naked eye without much preparation, a jeremiad on the CNBC cable network against the Obama administration’s proposed bailout for delinquent home mortgages. 

A Big Tent on the Right

Santelli, speaking live before trading hours on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, called for the convening of a “tea party,” which he said should be occupied, among other things, with “dumping in some derivative securities” into Lake Michigan. Santelli said nothing about a national movement, but within a few hours a video of his rant had been posted on the Drudge Report, become viral on YouTube, and Tea Parties were being announced, many with specific future dates, all over the country.

A scant year and a half later, the Tea Party movement has a real and very consequential existence, as I believe outgoing senators Robert Bennett of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, among many others, would readily acknowledge.

But why couple the Tea Party with social conservatism? After all, the two movements are concerned with very different issue clusters—the social conservatives with issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the role (if any) of God in the public square, while the Tea Party is intensely engaged on economic issues, with a particular concentration on the federal spending programs they associate with the term “big government.” Some political analysts, including more than a few conservatives, have even argued that one of the consequences of the rise of the Tea Party will be the marginalization if not outright eclipse of social conservatism.

Different as these issue sets are, it would be a mistake to assume a lack of ideological overlap between the two memberships. In fact, the (so far) very limited polling that has looked at the two movements in the 18 months since the rise of the Tea Party raises the possibility—I would even say the probability—that the vast majority of social conservative voters are sympathetic to the Tea Party, and that the vast majority of those who consider themselves in the Tea Party are in fact conservative on social issues. Underlining this probability is the fact that of the political candidates catapulted to prominence by the Tea Party—newly famous folks like Joe Miller of Alaska, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ken Buck of Colorado—all, to the best of my knowledge, campaigned as social as well as economic conservatives.

But if social and Tea Party conservatives turn out to be mostly the same people, what’s the big deal? How can a rise in intensity among millions of voters on economic issues be portrayed as a big net plus for Republicans, if so many of the newly activated people were already conservative voters on other grounds? Put another way: Absent the rise of the Tea Party, how many voters among its ranks would be open to reelecting Barack Obama in 2012? I believe the correct answer is: More than you might think.

For many decades on the left end of elective politics, voters have been predictably liberal on both social and economic issues. If a voter is open to changing the law to permit same-sex marriage, there is a high probability he or she is opposed to the kind of deep cuts in federal income tax rates favored by supply-siders. On the surface the two issues are unrelated, but, rightly or wrongly, many voters on the left see the two issues as part of the same larger argument.

Perhaps because American conservatism is a considerably newer movement than American liberalism, this has been less true of right-of-center voters. Social conservatives have not always felt the need to rally to the support of economic conservatives, for example. As a result, conservatives have come together more or less depending on the salience of different issue clusters in different election cycles. Let me give two examples.

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