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A Movement Explained

What does the Tea Party mean?

Apr 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 28 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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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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