Commentary Magazine


The Tea Party Mindset

It’s an interesting place in which I find myself. I share the Tea Party’s concerns about the Affordable Care Act and, more broadly, the threats posed by the increasing size, scope and reach of the federal government. I recognize the important role the populist movement played in the 2010 mid-term elections. And I wrote the other day that it’s important for there to be bridges built between the so-called conservative establishment and the Tea Party. Even still, I’ve found myself increasingly out of step with the Tea Party, for reasons that William Galston crystallized in his recent Wall Street Journal column.

Professor Galston, in writing about the Tea Party, relied on focus groups conducted by Stan Greenberg. As Galston reports

Supporters of the tea party, [Greenberg] finds, see President Obama as anti-Christian, and the president’s expansive use of executive authority evokes charges of “tyranny.” … ObamaCare is the tipping point, the tea party believes. Unless the law is defunded, the land of limited government, individual liberty and personal responsibility will be gone forever, and the new America, dominated by dependent minorities who assert their “rights” without accepting their responsibilities, will have no place for people like them.

For the tea party, ObamaCare is much more than a policy dispute; it is an existential struggle.

This analysis of the underlying attitudes of the Tea Party strikes me as basically right, based on my observations of the Tea Party and my own conversations and e-mail exchanges with friends and supporters of the Tea Party, during which I’ve both pushed back against their arguments and tried to understand their point of view.

My sense is they believe that America is at an inflection point. That we are about to enter into the land of no return. That demographic trends are all troubling and that the “takers” in America will soon outnumber the “givers.” That for many decades (or more) we’ve seen a “one-way ratchet toward ever bigger government.” And that a majority of Americans will become hooked on the Affordable Care Act like an addict to cocaine.

Assume this is, more or less, your mindset. If you love your country and believe it is engaged in an existential struggle, and about to lose – if tyranny is just around the corner — it might well create in you feelings of anxiousness, desperation, and aggression. And that can lead people to engage in battles you might not win because failure to fight will consign America to ruin. It is now or never.

You therefore end up supporting someone like Senator Ted Cruz, who promises to be conservatism’s 21st century Horatius at the Bridge – in this case leading a quixotic effort to force Senate Democrats, and President Obama himself, to defund his signature domestic achievement. And even if this gambit fails and damages your party and helps the very forces you oppose, so be it. There is glory in having waged the fight, even (and maybe especially) a losing fight.

In addition, this outlook creates rising anger at those whom Tea Partiers and their supporters thought were allies but in fact don’t really see the true nature of this apocalyptic struggle. They are part of the “establishment” – seen as passive, compliant, afraid, members of the “surrender caucus.” Going along to get along. Lusting for the approval of the (liberal) Georgetown cocktail set. Angling to appear on Morning Joe. Even, in a way, traitors to the cause. Which means there’s a need for a mass cleansing, the purification of a movement that can only come about by an auto-da-fe – directed even against those who agree with you on almost every policy matter. And so rock-ribbed conservatives like Senator Tom Coburn and Representative Pete Sessions are considered RINOs.

This is not, from my vantage point, a particularly healthy approach to politics or one moored to reality. You can believe, as I do, that President Obama is doing great harm to America, that his agenda is having an enervating effect and that we face deep and serious challenges.

But some perspective is also in order. We are actually not on the verge of collapse and ruin. This period is not comparable to the Great Depression or the period leading up to the Civil War or the collapse of Ancient Rome. And tyranny is not just around the corner.

This is, rather, a difficult time in some important respects – one that requires sobriety and wisdom, public officials of courage and good judgment who are willing to act boldly but not recklessly. The truth is that our afflictions are not beyond our ability to address them, that our society is a complicated mosaic that eludes simple, sweeping characterizations, and America’s capacity for self-renewal is quite extraordinary.

Beyond that is the importance of understanding that the life of a nation, like the life of an individual, includes ebbs and flows; that almost every generation feels as though the problems it faces are among the worst any generation has ever faced; and that setbacks are inevitable and that progress is often incremental.

A final thought: There is no question that a great deal of repair work needs to be done. But the growing sense among some on the right that a curtain of darkness is descending on America is both unwarranted and can lead people to act in ways that are self-destructive.

Without understating our challenges for a moment, I rather hope a figure will emerge from within the conservative ranks who is not only principled but also winsome, who possesses an open and flexible mind and has not learned the art of being discontent. A person who doesn’t find fulfillment in amplifying anxiety and anger. Who doesn’t dwell in the lowlands because he’s too busy aiming for the uplands. And who knows that this fallen world is not a world without hope.

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