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.
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.
The election cycles of 1988 and 2004 are the most recent in which social issues had a significant pro-Republican impact on a presidential election, electing George H.W. Bush and reelecting his son. (They also happen to be the only two elections of the last six in which Republicans carried the popular vote for president.) We can all argue the extent to which social issues turned those two elections, but my guess is that few Democratic strategists, if they had it to do over again, would advise Governor -Michael Dukakis to defend the law that furloughed Willie Horton to commit a rape in Maryland, or would advise the governor to defend his veto of a bill that would have required the Pledge of Allegiance with its phrase “under God” to be said in his state’s public schools.
Even fewer, I believe, would have encouraged the nationwide movement for same-sex marriage to time a successful court fight in Massachusetts in a manner that triggered 11 state referenda in a presidential year, including one in pivotal Ohio. My guess is that, not just subsequently but at the time, these hypothetical Democratic strategists would not have advised John Kerry to say with visible irritation to CBS’s Bob Schieffer in the final presidential debate the following words about Mary Cheney, whose name he did not mention: “We’re all God’s children, Bob. And if you were to talk to Dick Cheney’s daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she’s being who she was, she’s being who she was born as.”
Social issues are not often as prominent as they were in those two presidential races. And voters who are conservative on same-sex marriage, abortion, or the mention of God in public schools, have tended to scatter widely when the prominent issues instead are economic. These voters may still prefer the Republican nominee on social issues, but in a cycle where there is no high-profile controversy concerning social issues, such voters have often judged the candidates almost exclusively on economic and/or national security issues. And the latter two issue clusters have far less predictability as presidential voting issues, since they are more likely to be situational or event-driven in nature. In other words: How strong is the economy, or how is the war going? A voter’s answer to situational questions like these often drives his or her vote, or at least sets a political stage that starts out favorably or unfavorably for the incumbent party.
The emergence of the Tea Party movement raises the possibility that conservative Republicans are gaining an ability to make voting on economic issues less situational and more ideological. In other words, various types of conservatives are being more securely knit together. The movement is too new for this to be more than a possibility, but a test may well come when the Obama economy begins to improve. If this happens, as at some point it almost certainly will, does support for the president go up and the Tea Party movement fade? Or does the ideological component of the Tea Party’s anti-big-government rebellion enable it to survive as an ongoing political force with a more and more specific agenda—even in the context of a better economic environment for the president and other Democratic incumbents?
The big reason I am optimistic about the latter being the case is something the Tea Party has in common with social conservatism: that is, the two movements’ affinity for America’s founding values.
The Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and other right-of-center advocacy groups have for a number of years made available to the public free pocket copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. More than a year ago these pocket copies began being observed at Tea Party rallies around the country. A wide range of these locally based Tea Party movements are conducting seminars on the ideas of America’s Founders.
As for social conservatism and its relation to the American founding, Professor Robert George of Prince-ton, one of the most prominent of a new generation of social conservative leaders, has often remarked that belief in the words “All men are created equal”—literal belief, rather than as a sentiment or metaphor—is by far the best predictor of whether someone is a social conservative. If you believe those words from the Declaration are literally true, then the odds are you are a social conservative.
Given this rootedness in the founding, social conservatives and Tea Partiers have no problem with the idea of American exceptionalism centered on the idea that all persons are born with God-given equal rights. In other words, like Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, both movements feature a belief in an American exceptionalism that is in fact universal.
These are the things that social conservatism and the Tea Party movement seem to share. If the Tea Party is able to join social conservatism as a non-situational, ideological, American founding-centered movement in the years ahead, the political changes will be too vast for the historians of 2060 to be able to ignore.
Jeffrey Bell is policy director of the American Principles Project, a Washington advocacy group, and author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality. This article is adapted from a talk given at the annual convention of the American Political Science Association.