The Magazine

A Movement Explained

What does the Tea Party mean?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The world came unhinged in the fall of 2008.

Tea Party

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The United States had been in recession since the previous December, according to the Bureau of Economic Research, and in March 2008 the Fed had brokered a panicked fire sale of Bear Stearns to JPMorgan Chase. But the real drama did not begin until September, when the government nationalized mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, the government took over AIG, global credit markets froze, and a run began on money market funds.

To restore calm, President George W. Bush, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke proposed the $700 billion emergency Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to bail out insolvent financial institutions. TARP failed in the House of Representatives on the first vote, sending markets into a tailspin, but was later passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president in October.

TARP did not end the crisis, however. Global output continued to plunge, contributing to the presidential election of Barack Obama in November. The crash threatened the big three American automobile manufacturers, which lobbied the government for aid. On December 19 President Bush announced that the Treasury would award General Motors and Chrysler $13.4 billion in bridge loans to cross the financial ravine. Throughout all this, the Federal Reserve was massively increasing the money supply in an attempt to sustain liquidity.

Such a flurry of state activity would have been enough to spark a reaction from Americans traditionally suspicious of central government. But the interventions did not stop there. Even before Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 the collective wisdom in Washington held that the way to restore prosperity was a massive stimulus of public spending. So Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, at an eventual price tag of $840 billion, in February. The bill, which included an increased refundable tax credit for working people, showered money on state governments (and the public sector unions that staff them), on welfare and unemployment recipients, and on the Departments of Energy, Education, and Transportation. Then, on February 18, Obama proposed a $275 billion housing bailout to encourage refinancing among homeowners whose mortgages cost more than their homes were worth.

The fact that it was the mortgage plan—rather than the bank or auto bailouts or the stimulus—which provoked the first call for a new American Tea Party has been little remarked upon. But the detail is revealing. On the morning of February 19 CNBC anchor Rick Santelli delivered his famous rant against President Obama’s housing agenda, in which he called for friends of liberty to gather in Chicago in the summer to dump mortgage-backed securities into Lake Michigan. Santelli, in the space of less than five minutes, set the template for the coming populist reaction against the bipartisan, elite policies of tax, spend, bail out, and elect.

That template had two significant features. Santelli’s plea was grounded in American first principles, invoking the founding generation in its reference to the Tea Party and in appealing to the authority of “people like Benjamin Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson—what we’re doing in this country now is making them roll over in their graves.” Second, Santelli was not arguing simply that the government was spending too much money; his critique had a moral dimension that transcended mere accounting. “The government is promoting bad behavior,” he said. Some people had made mistakes during the height of the boom. Why should the government reward those mistakes by bailing out insolvent enterprises or lavishing money on homeowners who took on more debt than they could handle?

Spending one’s way out of a recession was not only counterintuitive; it was also harmful for one’s descendants, who would foot the bill. Implicit in the critique of bailouts has always been a moral critique of the actions that result in bailouts and the behaviors that are encouraged by them. Intrusive and profligate government doesn’t just harm economies and destroy balance sheets; it erodes character. There’s a reason the term for this is “moral hazard.”

A curious thing happened as the Tea Party grew in influence. Outside observers continued to notice the role that the American Founding played in Tea Party ideology. But those same observers increasingly neglected the Tea Party’s moral analysis of contemporary America. A left-wing writer such as John B. Judis would note the movement’s “obsession with decline” while downplaying the connection between the Tea Party’s regard for the Founders and its fear that what Charles Murray would call the “founding virtues”—industriousness, honesty, marriage, religiosity—were passing away. Some of the more libertarian Tea Partiers wanted to avoid social questions as much as possible.

Certainly events played a role in obscuring the Tea Party’s social agenda. For one thing, the deep and prolonged recession created huge deficits, adding to the nation’s sizable debt and throwing into sharp relief our long-term entitlement problem. President Obama seemed happy to ignore the trillion-dollar shortfalls while proposing a budget that would increase taxes and spending even further. The specter of Greece—which sank into political chaos and economic depression after years of overly generous pension and welfare benefits, lax tax collection, and voluntary submission to the euro’s monetary straitjacket—acted as a sort of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in American politics. Meanwhile, Obama wanted to create yet another entitlement, a national health care plan, which not only would potentially break the bank but also extend the government’s reach into more and more aspects of individual economic decision-making.

It was no mere coincidence, then, that as the Tea Party’s profile grew, so did that of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. In the face of Obama’s multipronged attempt to put America on a “New Foundation” more closely resembling the generous welfare states of Western Europe, Ryan was the sole Republican to put forth an equally ambitious and intellectually coherent policy response. The Ryan Roadmap, a revised version of which was released in the winter of 2010, incorporated Tea Party ideas on taxes and spending and would act as the basis for future GOP budgets. The White House’s Health Care Summit in February 2010 backfired when Ryan dismantled the Obama policy piece by piece in a six-minute speech that has been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube. On the issues of dollars and cents, the president had met his match.

Congressman Ryan, however, was no culture warrior. He was a self-described “second-generation supply-sider” whose goal was to foster economic growth, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans through fiscal and monetary policies that helped innovators, entrepreneurs, and businesses. He was a budget geek whose fastidiousness and discipline extended to his personal life, where he avoided sweets and followed the punishing P90X fitness program. He framed the debate with President Obama as a “choice between two futures,” but defined that choice primarily in economic rather than moral terms.

It was the positive influence of Ryan, along with Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections, that gave rise to the notion that the Tea Party was most successful when it put economic issues ahead of social ones. Almost all of the 85 House Republican freshmen who took back that chamber of Congress were social conservatives who supported the right to life and traditional marriage. So were most of the 12 Republicans who won Senate seats. But the failure of Republicans to take the Senate was blamed on several weak candidates who (it was said) incorrectly made social issues the focus of their campaigns: Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Joe DioGuardi in New York were all viewed as too socially conservative for their states, and therefore unelectable.

A Tea Party candidate who wanted to win, common opinion held, would be well advised to talk about balancing the budget rather than protecting the unborn. Or as Elizabeth Price Foley puts it, “The emphasis of Tea Party conservatism is economic and constitutional, not social.” The sources of the Tea Party’s appeal to everyday Americans are the ideas of limited government, American sovereignty, and constitutional originalism, Foley writes. And these ideas were “widely embraced at the time of the country’s founding.” The cause of the Republican resurgence was not social conservatism; it was “classical liberalism.”

Foley’s study is well written. She accurately summarizes important currents in Tea Party thought. Her legal analysis of the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual health insurance mandate is must-reading. I encourage readers to mail copies of the book to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court chambers. But her libertarian inclinations and legal background lead to a misreading of the Tea Party. Most of the activists in revolutionary garb do not attend rallies with a specific constitutional doctrine in mind. “Sovereignty” is not mentioned on the Gadsden flag, and it is a good question whether the Tea Party has a consistent foreign policy. Limited government is surely an important feature of the Tea Party, but it is an idea that encompasses far more than economics. Limited government presupposes self-government, which presupposes a citizenry that possesses virtue and good character.

When Tea Partiers recall the Founders, they summon images of wise and reflective men who instituted constitutional government to protect the liberties of the people against overweening factions. But they also summon images of an earlier age in which (they believe) virtues such as thrift, self-reliance, fidelity, piety, industry, and responsibility were valued. And it is precisely these virtues, in the Tea Party’s understanding, which allowed the Founders’ institutional arrangements to work for as long as they did—until the Founders’ vision of rights was replaced by the progressives’ vision, and limited government fell to the administrative state and its politicized dispensation of entitlements.

What motivates the Tea Party, then, is a sense of loss, a feeling that America has come unmoored from her political and moral inheritance and is in danger of seeing it disappear entirely. Self-reliant, frugal, industrious America could be turned irrevocably into a dependent, cynical, spendthrift, licentious America. What Paul Krugman has taken to calling the Lesser Depression may have heightened those fears, but they are unlikely to disappear as the economy naturally recovers. After all, Barack Obama’s ambitions for America will remain no matter the condition of the economy, and it is these ambitions to “transform” the character of our society that have fueled the Tea Party more than anything else.

Looking at the Tea Party from a non-“classical liberal” angle clarifies some apparent paradoxes. To begin with, this supposedly libertarian movement holds socially conservative attitudes: A Pew study from February 2011 found that “Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage” and “are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues.” The Public Religion Research Institute found in November 2011 that 47 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers also identify with the religious right. Sociologists David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam write in the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs that “the strongest predictor of a Republican becoming a Tea Party supporter is whether he or she evinced a desire in our 2006 survey to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”

Tea Partiers are less concerned with the size of government than with its character. They are worried less that government welfare will be generous than that it will be undeserved. For years, Democrats have joked that this supposedly “anti-government” group does not want to see drastic cuts in Social Security and Medicare. But the Democrats’ condescension has been doubly misplaced: The Tea Party is more anti-Obamacare than it is anti-New Deal, and Tea Partiers regard Social Security and Medicare as deserved benefits. The recipients paid into the system, they should get something out. And what they receive could be modified depending on necessity and prudence—and by supporting the Ryan budget, Tea Partiers have done more than any Democrat to cut government while preserving the idea of deserved benefits.

The Tea Party’s moral vision also explains why it has been reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. If the Tea Party really were as economics-based as some would like us to believe, it would back the Republican candidate who has made jobs policy the center of his campaign. Instead, Tea Partiers have thrown their support behind a variety of candidates, all of whom have emphasized the religious and the social over the merely economic. It is Mitt Romney’s checkered past on the abortion issue, along with his Northeastern roots in a Southern and Western party, that have given him trouble with conservatives.

Nor was it social issues that doomed those Senate candidacies in Delaware, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska, and New York in 2010. If social issues were poison pills, then equally conservative candidates such as Marco Rubio, Ron Johnson, Kelly Ayotte, and Rand Paul would not have won competitive races in their states. Social conservatism did not cost the GOP Harry Reid’s Senate seat; Sharron Angle’s flakiness did.

Indeed, the real achievement of the Tea Party is not that it has successfully purged social issues from the Republican agenda but that it has given Republican economic policies a moral ground on which to stand. Lower taxes, less spending, reformed entitlements, and freer trade can be tough sells on their own. But wedded to the vision of the Declaration of Independence, in which government exists to secure only those rights that we possess by virtue of being human, a market-friendly agenda makes a lot more economic, social, and political sense.

So we owe thanks to the Tea Partiers because they are responsible for recovering the Declaration’s vision. They remind us that the business of government is not to help anyone’s profit margin but to protect the natural rights of individuals from intrusive, meddlesome majorities. Harking back to the Founders gives the Tea Party an ideological consistency and political adaptability that could prove immensely powerful. The Tea Party is in a unique position to explain the economic costs of Obamacare as well as the law’s infringement of both the right to life and the right of conscience. Such a critique of liberalism on the grounds of natural justice may disappoint dyed-in-the-wool libertarians, but it has the potential to mobilize more voters than a 20 percent cut in the marginal tax rate.

The problem with most current perspectives on the Tea Party is that they look at the movement through contemporary eyes rather than the eyes of the Founders, who saw no distinction among the moral, the political, and the economic. The closest Elizabeth Price Foley comes to attempting this is when she quotes Jefferson’s 1821 letter to Charles Hammond:

When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government or another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.

What did Jefferson think would be the check against the centralizing tendencies of government? “It is the manners and spirit of a people,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “which preserve a republic in vigor.” The Tea Party is significant because it embodies the manners and spirit of an America that seeks to preserve a vigorous constitutional republic, and because it reminds us that one cannot have a limited and good government without an active and virtuous people. 

Matthew Continetti is editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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