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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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.”

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