I loved the Tea Party. I also hated the Tea Party. In the twilight of our brief libertarian moment, this conjunction may be worth examining.
The Tea Party accomplished something that we rarely see in politics: it generated widespread enthusiasm for austerity. This achievement should not be underappreciated. Politicians seldom have to pay for their wastefulness and rash promises. Most people prefer feasting to fasting, and in an age of easy credit, it’s often possible to delay the lean years until one’s term of office expires. Fill your own coffers through graft, and leave the next guy to handle the stack of bills.
The Tea Party didn’t exactly put a stop to that, but at least it shone a spotlight on the problem. Wondrous things were seen in the Tea Party years. Politicians explained why our pension and entitlement commitments were wildly unrealistic. Television and radio hosts preached the injustice of burdening future generations with the debts from our wasteful spending. Thanks to the Tea Party, millions of Americans now understand how the regulatory state is draining the life out of our culture and economy.
The Tea Party also may be remembered in years to come as the nursery for some great statesmen. Fledgling politicians like Mike Lee, Paul Ryan, and Ben Sasse cut their teeth in this period, and the effects of that conditioning can still be seen in their thinking as they become more seasoned. They understand with considerable nuance why the welfare state has failed. They appreciate the fearsome dimensions of our looming entitlement crisis and our burgeoning national debt. The Tea Party’s concerns are written into the political DNA of our brightest rising stars, and this is a promising sign. For a politician, coming of age in a small-government moment is an advantage, much like having been given effective discipline as a child. It helps in accomplishing great things.
The Tea Party and Social Conservatism
In so many ways, the Tea Party victories were a magnificent achievement. Even so, this movement had its shortcomings. Many social conservatives remember this period grimly, not just because they lost so many battles, but because they seemed to be losing alone. Even as they were winning ground on the pro-life front, the Romney campaign treated them like an embarrassment. Prominent conservative personalities advised them to accept permanent-minority status. Leading figure after leading figure jumped ship on the marriage debate, and when progressives proved as ungracious in victory as traditionalists had anticipated, few apologies were issued.
To many social conservatives, the Tea Party years are remembered as a period of unapologetic betrayal. It’s a misunderstanding, at least to a certain extent. No doubt some conservatives really did just cave under liberal pressure. Still, in the heady days of Tea Party glory, many small-government conservatives firmly believed that they could hold the line against progressive advances simply by making a principled stand against the growth of the state. Tea Party enthusiasts overwhelmingly agreed that religious conservatives should not be cowed into submission by zealous progressive overlords. They simply thought that it might be possible to defuse the culture wars by making them exclusively cultural. If we could slide these emotional debates out of the political realm, the stakes would be lower, and people could work out social compromises on the ground, as they properly should do.
To the grizzled veterans of the culture wars, this always seemed naïve, and a strong case can now be made that they were right. Social conservatives are divided on Trump, but a sizable share have flocked to his banners, which is no doubt partly attributable to their lingering sense of betrayal. Convinced that the Republican Party was poised to abandon them at the first available opportunity, many were prepared to cheer a hostile party takeover. In the eyes of the desperate, a soulless mercenary may look better than no protection at all.
Why Did the Tea Party Fail?
Why was the Tea Party reasoning naïve, though? What was so deficient about the limited-government vision? The answer to that question takes us beyond the signature issues of the social conservatives, forcing us to confront deeper questions about the future of conservative politics.
Social conservatives knew, or at least instinctively understood, that the progressive monster was too aggressive to be constrained with a limited-government straitjacket. Size-of-government questions are deeply important to the politically engaged, but they’re too abstract to energize the general public for long. Most people agree nowadays that our government is bloated and generally ineffective. Nevertheless, voters go on demanding that the state address a whole spate of problems; the list seems to grow longer all the time. Grumbling about taxes is one thing, but in the end, starving the beast just isn’t the priority of the common man.
Cultural questions, by contrast, cut to the core of what ordinary people truly value. They engage the public on a more visceral level. The harsh reality is this: our Constitution alone will not be adequate protection if we allow the left to sweep through our mainstream culture and our institutions. We still need both sides of the fusionist compact.
This isn't just an argument for social conservatism. Relevantly similar analysis could be applied to many other sources of social angst. In the Tea Party era, we celebrated individualism, entrepreneurship, and self-reliance. Those are all fine things, but they can’t be the answer to every political question. Ordinary people value community, tradition, and national identity. They feel solidarity with the suffering. They yearn for a glimpse of the future. They worry about the health and safety of their families. It’s difficult to speak to many of those concerns if our overwhelming priority is to restrain governmental activity. But we must speak to those concerns if we want conservatism to be more than a reactionary counterpoint to a more comprehensive liberal vision. A one-legged stool will never stand for very long.
Limited government is not finished as a conservative cause. As our political class grows more corrupt, the need to divest them of power is more obvious than ever. Nevertheless, we do need to learn from the sudden demise of our limited-government moment.
Learning from the Tea Party’s Fate
In 2014, I wrote an article suggesting that the left might helpfully be compared to the Hydra, a mythical monster with two fearsome, serpentine heads. The Hydra was notoriously difficult to kill. If you lopped off one of its heads, two more would grow back in its place. Hercules eventually defeated the beast by enlisting his friend Iolaus to stand by with a hot iron, immediately sealing the wound on each severed head before it could regrow. It took a very targeted plan to address such a powerful threat.
We might name our liberal Hydra “The Scourge of Fusionism.” Big government and our dissolute culture work in tandem to bring the nation under the control of a corrupt class of insulated technocrats. Conservatives try to fight back, but we have a bad (though understandable) habit of fixating on just one of the writhing heads. From the big-spending Bush years, we moved on to a small-government moment. Both times, we were ambushed from behind by the neglected half of the liberal monster. To have any hope of success, we need a broader and more coordinated plan.
One promising strategy might be to convert our enthusiasm for limited government into a more concerted push for local government. Federalism has long been a conservative principle, but the Republican Party is better known for its efforts to starve the beast than to fragment it. Rugged individualism is a hard sell when so many of our compatriots are lonely and desperate for a more robust community life. On the other hand, the call for more local initiatives (both public and private) might generate significant enthusiasm, especially among the energetic-but-alienated young. That could easily go hand in hand with a renewed push for limiting the powers of the federal government. America is a diverse country. Alabamans and Oregonians should be permitted to make different decisions about how they want to live. It should be acceptable for Orange County and Mariposa County to have somewhat different priorities.
Demands for tax cuts should be matched by careful attention to how money is and should be spent. Instead of just railing against debt, suggest ways to do more with less. How can we improve our welfare system, so as to assist those in true need while minimizing damage to our social structures? Could charter schools or vouchers improve our school systems without upping the cost? Is there potential to cut our corrections budgets safely, by improving our crime-control strategies, and availing ourselves of better reentry strategies for former offenders? Addressing those questions seriously might enable us to “slim the beast” while demonstrating that we still care about our fellow Americans.
By helping to craft good policy, and working for cultural renewal, we can win credibility that can then be cross-applied to the culture wars. Cultural decay and abuse of state power tend to go hand in hand, so an effective response must aim at creating a “virtuous cycle” of cultural revival and a slimmed-down and less-centralized government.
Keeping Hope Alive
The Hydra was a fearsome beast. Brave men would cower at the very sight of it. Comparing the left to this demon might sound like a counsel of despair. Yet there is something comforting about viewing our present political quandary as part of an epic and arduous quest. So often conservatives become demoralized by the sense that we are failing in easy and obvious ways. Our politicians are spineless, or our pundits are sellouts. Our people are weak, resentful, and envious, perpetually susceptible to the left’s idle promises. Again and again, we flagellate ourselves for our lack of fortitude or conviction, which prevents us from doing what must be done.
Perhaps we just need to appreciate that the road is harder than we wanted to believe. We struggle because the enemy is fierce, not because our allies are overwhelmingly weak and faithless. Almost certainly, more failures lie ahead, and yet Hercules found a way. So may we.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.