Arnold Kling  

Tea Time

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That was the name of this symposium, which I attended. In general, the conservative establishment seems to have discovered the Tea Party movement, and so in addition to the symposium I want to talk about other attempts by elite conservatives to come to terms with the Tea Party. My thoughts are below the fold.

The Spring 2010 issue of the Claremont Review of Books has several assessments of the Tea Party Movement (TPM). William Voegeli writes,


It emerged at the culmination of the long project to supplant a ruling class based on social position and wealth with one based on brains. The new meritocrats...are being disparaged at Tea Party meetings and blogs by the people whom they govern.

And, of course, the feeling is mutual. The governing class would like to elect a new public.

...A leadership class that actually improved ordinary Americans' security and opportunities would be forgiven condescension worse than Obama's. it's when the people running the country are both disrespectful and ineffectual that folks get angry.

Of course, if this is a Hayekian moment, as I believe it is, then the governing class is bound to be ineffectual.

...it's not clear that America has a relief establishment warming up in the bullpen

Voegeli says that the establishment in the 1960's, still based on inherited wealth to a large degree, voluntarily gave way under the duress of the Vietnam War and the protests that it engendered. The new establishment has no intention of giving way. But even if it did, Voegeli worries about the need for a "relief establishment." His solution would appear to be:

if you'll permit a parochial observation, the Claremont Institute, which antedates the movement by 30 years, and was created to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life...Conservatives have to finish the sentence, to explain how shrewdly delimited government can succeed where sloppy, undisciplined government has failed...The political problem is that the Tea Party populists may not accede to a conservative agenda set by a different set of experts and professionals.

The Summer 2010 issue of National Affairs also has an essay on the TPM, by Henry Olsen. He argues that the sort of populism feared by our founders and associated with things like Nazism treats ordinary people as helpless victims, demonizes the other, and seeks to redistribute property from the villains to the victims. In contrast, he argues that the TPM sees

American people not as helpless victims, but as honest folk dispossessed of their right to achieve prosperity and happiness through self-improvement and hard work.

...the "other" in American populism tends not to be vilified as an implacable enemy without rights. Instead, he is an adversary...but still a fellow citizen who...is capable of redemption, and is secure in his rights.

American populists generally do not seek to take the enemy's property and redistribute it to the people. Instead...the people will again be able to help themselves....the key [to success for populist politicians] is to offer clear, positive proposals that can be easily identified as efforts to help people help themselves.

While Voegeli and Olsen see the TPM as a reaction against the Progressive project, the panel at today's event had a different, and I think more accurate, view. Jonah Goldberg called the TPM "delayed Bush backlash," and Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana seemed to agree. Pence expressed bitterness over No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, and TARP. Michael Barone and others saw TARP as a key trigger. Dick Armey, whose organization FreedomWorks is the conservative establishment group most closely affiliated with the TPM, said that no Congressman who voted for TARP can speak at a Tea Party rally without being booed. Bill Kristol perhaps said that the nomination of Sarah Palin was another triggering factor, because people took the governing class' contempt for her as contempt for them.

During the Q&A, a young person in the audience asked about the relationship of Ron Paul to the TPM. Dick Armey said that Palin and Paul were both popular with the TPM because they are seen as authentic, rather than plastic politicians.

Michael Barone said that the New Deal would have been repudiated in 1940 had the election been focused on domestic issues. Instead, the war kept the Democrats in office.

Armey and others pointed to the popularity of books about the Founding Fathers, which became notable in the 1990's and has persisted. Armey sees the TPM as concentrated on a reverence for the original Constitution. Barone says that people respond favorably to the Founders, the Constitution, and the idea of limited government. He says that, by contrast, the original Progressive ideals sound "tinny." Think of the labor union movement, which today is either irrelevant (in the private sector) or a malevolent special interest (public sector unions).

What will be the long-term impact of the TPM? I think it was Goldberg who cited Richard Hofstader to the effect that a third party movement is best when it is like a bee--it stings and then it dies. The idea is to sting Progressives and me-too Republicans and then die. At the other extreme, Barone compared the TPM to the 1960's peace movement, which produced a generation of political leaders that is still with us. Afterwards, I pointed out to Barone that the typical peace movement veteran is 60 today, while the typical TPM veteran will be 100 in forty years. He said, "I thought of that while I was talking."

Armey pointed out that TPM folks tend to read and to think critically about what they read. This observation, which I have also noticed in my limited experience speaking to TPMers, is something that will be very hard for the Left to get its mind around. My guess is that at some point in the next year or two, the fact that the Washington crowd is not as intelligent as it thinks it is and the fact that the TPMers are more intelligent than the Washington crowd thinks they are will become evident in some dramatic way that forces changes in the mainstream media narrative.

Meanwhile, I find it fascinating to watch establishment groups in the conservative and libertarian worlds try to come to grips with the TPM. I think that the Cato and Reason folks will remain wary of the TPM, primarily because of the issues of immigration and gay rights. (Pence linked fiscal responsibility with traditional marriage as moral issues.)

Some big-government conservatives may try to sneak their views in, perhaps on the grounds of needing what Olsen calls "clear, positive proposals." However, I think that Goldberg is right that the TPM is an expression of Bush backlash, and the TPM wants to dump compassionate conservatism, whatever the consequences.

I don't see the TPM succeeding as a sting-and-die operation. The Progressives are too well entrenched to be moved out in an election or two. I think the best hope is that, average demographics of the TPM notwithstanding, the Barone scenario plays out. That is, among the people attracted to the TPM there will be a young cadre who are highly intelligent, creative, and ultimately influential. They will find a way around what I call the Established Church of Unlimited Government. It might not turn out to be a revival of the Constitution. But it will provide, for at least some if not all Americans, an alternative to living in a European welfare state.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
John Fast writes:

My view of the Tea Party Movement is primarily based on the fact that it's diverse. Everyone in it is economically "conservative" (which is good, of course). Some are libertarians, while others are social conservatives and therefore against immigration reform and gay marriage rights, and probably a lot of them don't really care much about social issues compared to economic ones.
It's unfortunate that some of the TPMers are not socially tolerant, although it's good that they're at least in favor of fiscal responsibility.

My guess is that at some point in the next year or two, the fact that the Washington crowd is not as intelligent as it thinks it is and the fact that the TPMers are more intelligent than the Washington crowd thinks they are will become evident in some dramatic way that forces changes in the mainstream media narrative.
That would be good, and I'm not sure what could actually accomplish it, except perhaps for a TPM candidate to demonstrate intelligence -- which really means glibness -- while clearly beating an establishment candidate in a televised debate.

Rebecca Burlingame writes:

"...having been dispossessed of the right to achieve prosperity and happiness through hard work and self-improvement"

I immediately think of the long hours and days people put in to make something work out for careers, etc. People try again. And again. Nope, don't think the Tea Party is going away anytime soon.

A friend asked me recently what I thought of Sarah Palin. I told her that while I didn't think Palin has a clearly defined agenda, perhaps with her energy and enthusiasm she could still get behind those who have solutions.

david writes:

There's a reason why establishments exist, and politicians seem plastic - whenever politicians are unrestrained for long, they eventually and inevitably say something silly on TV.

And then the establishment strikes back.

You always need mainstream support, not just from the base - Rand Paul won by distancing himself from the national-level brouhaha. Right now the Republican establishment is willing to work with the TPM, mostly; it will be interesting to see what happens when their interests start obviously conflicting - when TPMers run serious candidates against prominent establishment Republicans.

Snorri Godhi writes:

It emerged at the culmination of the long project to supplant a ruling class based on social position and wealth with one based on brains.

This is fine as long as it is made clear that this project is just that: a project. Just because people try to select a ruling class based on brains, it does not mean that they'll succeed. In fact, I claim that they are bound to fail, based on the Peter Principle and especially on Pournelle's Iron Laws of Bureaucracy. (I suppose that any Masonomist would be able to cite principles with more academic cachet.)

Eric Hanneken writes:

I think that the Cato and Reason folks will remain wary of the TPM, primarily because of the issues of immigration and gay rights.

Not to mention issues of war, torture, and civil rights.
fundamentalist writes:

I think we saw the Tea Partiers in the early 90's with the Republican effort to take over Congress with it's "contract with America". What happened when the young guns got to Washington? They all converted to progressivism and betrayed voters.

Sarah Palin may be "genuine", but she favors big government as much as any progressive. She merely wants the guv to do different things. She constantly mentions problems that the guv must solve without grasping that limited government is the opposite of problem solving government. Limited government tells the people to solve their own problems.

A bumper sticker says "Democrats want to b your momma; Republicans want to be your daddy; Libertarians just want you to grow the hell up!"

sourcreamus writes:

Its amazing that there are millions of people organizing for smaller government which should be every libertarians fondest wish and some are turning up their nose because Teapartiers are NOTD and have incorrect views about gay marriage and immigration. In politics, those who refuse to take half a loaf go hungry.

BZ writes:

@sourcreamus:
I see politicians as always looking for a place to find their Next Vote. They can safely ignore the party faithful (after the primary) -- by definition that vote is secured. However, amongst all the various Outside Voters, a mental calculus goes on to figure out how to snatch the biggest chunk of them. Whether those Outside Voters are libertarians, tea-partiers, or environmental activists, the politician will scheme.

In short, as an Outside Voter, the choice on which of my issues make the politician talking points is not up to me. I lose nothing by demanding all my issues be respected. I gain nothing by dropping some.

Now, after the election, how the bastard behaves will also be informed by this calculus, but also by other things, such as pressure from the party leadership dangling money and support in front of him, and his general political instincts.

Mercer writes:

"Jonah Goldberg called the TPM "delayed Bush backlash," and Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana seemed to agree. Pence expressed bitterness over No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, and TARP. Michael Barone and others saw TARP as a key trigger."

I thought the TPM was sparked by Santelli's rant against helping out homeowners mortgage debt. If that is considering the founding moment it is hard to square with the reasons given above.

Personally I think it is people who vote GOP who are upset the Dems are running DC now.

Ted writes:

I'll bet anyone the Tea Party movement will live until after next Presidential election when it'll die down no matter who wins. Furthermore, they won't have any influence on policy since the Tea Party supporters will overwhelmingly and with oh such gullibility vote for the same Republicans who will pursue the same policies that the Tea Party allegedly dislikes.

This is not a serious political movement. I have no idea what they want, what ideas the have, or how they plan to pursue them. If they were serious they would stop wasting time with Republicans and try to bolster the libertarian party with their support.

As a side note though, it would be a nice historical connection if the Tea Party movement was a response to a corporate bailout (TARP) since the original tea party was in a response to a corporate bailout (East India Company).

John Fast writes:

I'm not the only one to notice a diversity -- or dichotomy -- in the TPM: "Many in the Tea Party Crowd Have Little Appetite for War and Empire"

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