Tea Partiers Late to the Party

Nothing sets the chattering class to chattering quite like that exotic and excitable clan, the Tea Party. Dismissed by turns as faux rabble-rousers and dangerous lunatics, this strange species of tax-loathing citizens continues to baffle and infuriate the national media and political elite -- left and right.

Some evidence has recently emerged to warm the hearts of those who would like to see the Tea Party fade into irrelevancy. A June Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, shows popular support for the Tea Party, if not collapsing, then certainly taking a hit, with 50 percent reporting an "unfavorable" view of the movement, up from 39 percent in a previous survey.  

And yet, somehow, Tea Party-supported candidates continue to enjoy electoral success, confounding liberals to the core. As Charles Babingon, writing for the Associated Press admits, the Tea Party may be experiencing "growing pains," but nevertheless "still wields remarkable powers to shape the Republican Party," as the recent primary victories of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Nikki Haley in South Carolina, and Paul LePage in Maine amply demonstrate.

But to some observers, the Tea Party portends something far darker than a new and influential wing of the Republican Party. Indeed, some have seen the Tea Party as nothing less than a nascent revolutionary movement, the activities of which could easily turn violent. And it is not only liberal bloggers given to such fervent worrying; erstwhile conservative columnist Kathleen Parker told Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation," "With all this heated rhetoric and some of these words that carry -- that are pretty loaded -- 'reload,' 'targeting,' all that sort of thing, you know -- there`s a danger there. I just think we have to be very vigilant ... I do think there is a lot of anger and it could become something else."

So what about these Tea Partiers? Is this "angry mob" really in danger of dropping the picket signs and replacing them with pitchforks and pistols? Hardly.

The Tea Partiers are certainly passionate. Their love for, and dedication to, America's founding documents and principles is beyond reproach and, to many liberals, beyond understanding. But the actions of the Tea Partiers -- marches, town halls, etc. -- are far too little, far too late to effect the kind of change they profess to desire. And they are extremely unlikely to go any farther in pursuit of their goals.

As philosopher Lee Harris points out in his excellent, if ostentatiously titled, new book, The Next American Civil War, vast impersonal forces long ago swept the conservative dream of a limited constitutional republic into oblivion. Circumstances beyond the control of any one politician or party compelled the United States in previous centuries to become powerful enough to dominate the world stage in the kind of role only a large -- and expensive -- central government can fulfill. Unfortunately, a government large and powerful enough to defeat Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and make the world safe for democracy abroad will invariably be large and powerful enough to shrink democracy at home; and a government large enough to curtail the liberties of its citizens will eventually find reason to do so, usually under the righteous banner of "the public good."

As Harris points out, it is here is where the self-defeating and mutually exclusive priorities of today's populist conservatives become painfully evident: Many, if not most, desire and support a large and powerful military and a world leadership role for the United States; many, if not most, strongly support our soldiers and their missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as their stabilizing presence in South Korea, Europe, etc. At the same time, today's populist conservatives want -- nay, demand -- small government and even smaller taxes.

Sorry. Not going to happen.

And yet, Tea Partiers are poised, they think, to "take back" their government in the 2010 and 2012 elections, presumably by sending more Republicans to Washington. Ah, yes, Republicans. Not the same kind of Republicans who instituted America's first income tax, not the same kind who first failed to stop and then failed to roll back the egregious socializations of the New Deal and the Great Society, not the same kind who implemented a massive new entitlement program just this previous decade.

No, not those kinds of Republicans, one can hear the Tea Partiers answer. Different, better Republicans, who will take on the entitlement state, shrink the federal government, and restore/preserve our liberties. Perhaps.

The GOP has its virtues, to be sure, but perhaps the best that can truly be said about it is that it is only the least bad of the two parties when it comes to expanding government. And that is not, in the end, saying very much. Republicans have doled out public monies to their constituents in exchange for electoral support -- an unstated yet still Faustian bargain -- just as Democrats have done. 

Astute thinkers have long recognized such transactions as the perhaps fatal flaw of representative government. When politicians realize they can gain power by promising largess from the public purse, two things happen. One, such politicians compete with one another to out-bribe the public, creating fiscally unsustainable government obligations. And two, the citizenry becomes addicted to spirit-crushing handouts and eventually comes to desire little else.

In his 10th Satire, the Latin poet Juvenal lambasted the desultory and degraded Roman citizen of his day (the early 2nd century A.D.), a once-vigorous breed who had long since been drugged by "bread and games" (panem et circenses) dispensed from public coffers. As in Rome, so, too, in America: It didn't take long for politicians to promise, and the people to hungrily devour, public benefits, a cycle which -- in conjunction with the large and necessary American footprint in world affairs -- organically pushed the size and expense of the federal government ever upwards.  

And it is here, perhaps, where another contradiction in the Tea Party platform can be seen:  How many of these protesters rallying against the socialization of their republic are on Medicare? How many of them collect Social Security? A fair number, I'd wager, few of whom would likely be willing to forgo such benefits. This charge of hypocrisy is often invoked by liberals; scornfully, to be sure, but it is nonetheless a legitimate point -- once you have accepted a little socialization -- indeed, have benefited from it -- you are on the shakiest of philosophical ground when you then demand that the government stay out of your affairs. Republican politicians embody this cognitive dissonance when they in one breath denounce ObamaCare while promising to "shore up" and "protect" Medicare, without realizing that the latter begat the former and the two are of a perfect piece philosophically.

The painful truth is this: To give them the kind of government that the Tea Partiers they would like, the new and virtuous Republicans we are promised would have to abolish whole swaths of the federal government as it is currently constituted, including extremely popular programs, entitlements, and bureaucracies (Department of Education, anyone?). You may rest assured that that will not happen.

A limited constitutional republic did once exist on this continent, and perhaps could exist again -- but only if today's Tea Partiers were willing to use the same means as the original Tea Partiers. It is today difficult to comprehend, but our Founding Fathers represented the elite of their time, leading lights in business (John Hancock), law (John Adams), the military (George Washington), and the arts and sciences (Ben Franklin). Yet these prominent, successful men, who had everything to lose, not only advocated violence in the cause of liberty -- they organized it, directed it, and participated in it. 

Can you imagine such leading men of today -- say, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or General Petraeus, the type of men whose participation would be necessary for any resistance to succeed -- advocating violence in defense of lost or threatened liberty? Of course not -- such rhetoric is by common agreement beyond the pale in our society. This is why the current trajectory of the United States away from individual liberty and toward statism will never be other than temporarily slowed at best. Americans have, for the most part, forsworn violence in pursuit of domestic political goals.

This is of course, a good thing, and the reason Americans have enjoyed an astonishingly stable society (barring the catastrophe that was the mid-19th century) since the Founding. However, such placidity can be disastrous when liberties are threatened by a state so powerful that only forcible resistance could thwart it. And even if those peaceful habits were not so deeply ingrained in our citizens, the days when your average yeoman could pick up a musket and be the equal to a state-funded professional soldier are long gone. The government now possesses strength of arms far beyond the capacity of Tea Partiers or any group of discontents, right or left, to match, much less overcome.

Our ancestors set this continent in flames over far smaller outrages to liberty than ObamaCare. We honor those ancestors and justify the extreme actions they took as a necessary price for the liberty and prosperity we subsequently enjoyed. Today, Americans have neither the inclination nor the means to take such actions, even as that liberty and prosperity are threatened as never before.

It is a perhaps unavoidable irony that the very success of the Founding generation would produce a society far too soft and civilized to follow in their revolutionary footsteps. As Harris points out, "At the original Boston Tea Party, the American patriots expressed their outrage over ... a trifling tax by deliberately destroying private property in a flagrant act of vandalism. At today's revival of the Tea Party, tax-hating Americans sit around sipping tea."