Passion is good, but reason is better
There are two things that can be said with certainty about the Tea Party movement: It is the best thing to happen to the political culture of this country in this century and conversely it is the worst thing to happen to the political culture in this country. While the Tea Party has dominated political discourse since it was founded in 2009, the movement is nothing new; it is simply a continuation of similar political movements that have come and gone since the time of the Roman Empire. The general term applied to these types of political movements is “populist.”
There have been many populist movements in American history, the most prominent of which was the Populist Party of the 1890s, formed by millions of farmers and workers who were frustrated by the economic domination of corporations and trusts. The party’s objective was to push for anti-trust regulations. Other populist movements included the Greenback Party, the Progressive Party and the Share Our Wealth party led by presidential-aspirant Huey Long in the 1930s.
Despite their variety, the consistent theme of all populist movements has been frustration with the political or economic condition status quo. The goal of the movement was not so much to change the fundamental system itself, but to focus on specific elements of the system that raised the ire and bonded members of the movement. Most populist movements gained influence and power by coalescing the fears and concerns of “the people” against the establishment and “the elite” of society. This approach pits the “haves” against the “have-nots,” and has been used to achieve both good and extremely dangerous results.
For example, the efforts of the Populist Party in America led directly to the passage of anti-trust regulations, which opened new economic opportunity and freedom for millions of Americans. Once this had been achieved, however, the party faded from view. On the other hand, the Nazi Party in Germany played the tune of populism to rally middle-class support. The Nazis targeted the frustrations of middle-class populists to mobilize their anger at big government and big business. They promised to break social barriers of status and caste and they espoused the populist ideal of a “people’s society” to take power. We know how that worked out. We also know the aforementioned Huey Long was shot dead by the relative of a political enemy.
The Tea Party is on a Road Less Traveled
There are a number of factors that differentiate the Tea Party from earlier populist movements. Unlike previous American populist movements that sought to achieve their goals by putting forth a slate of candidates to challenge the power of the traditional parties, the Tea Party is not really a political party at all. Rather, it is a fairly loose conglomeration of independent groups that are drawn together by a shared frustration with the perceived loss of individual freedom and by the intrusions of what they see as an expansive, dominant government. Another clear distinction between the Tea Party and previous populist movements is the absence of a clear identifiable leader. Instead, there are a number of individuals identified with the Tea Party, i.e. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, Michael Huckabee and others, but they more often than not pander to members of the Tea Party, rather than lead it.
Three Ways the Contemporary Tea Party is Unique
- Probably the most glaring variance between the Tea Party and earlier populist movements is that the goals and objectives of the Tea Party seem to be in direct conflict with the self-interests of its members. The vast majority of Tea Party followers are hard-working (white) members of the middle-class. At the same time, the vast majority of organizational and funding support has come from conservative professional politicos and multi-millionaires. (See Charles and David Koch.)
- Under the guise of protecting individual freedom, the professed objectives of the Tea Party movement are to significantly reduce government spending for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education and health care and to virtually eliminate government regulation of business, while reducing or even eliminating taxes for corporations and investors. In light of this, one must ask just who benefits from these changes? Let me give you a hint: It is not the poor or the middle class! Who benefits from reduced regulation of business – corporations or consumers? Who makes more money and pays less in taxes – corporations or individuals?
- One final, but important distinction between previous populist movements and the Tea Party is that the earlier movements sought change to move forward, while the Tea Party seeks to make changes to move back.
Despite the fundamental differences between the Tea Party and previous populists movements there are many more similarities that tie them together, for good and bad. Populist movements – including the Tea Party – tend to focus on clear, simple, easily defined (if not easily resolved) issues. The Tea Party is no different than former populist movements in that its followers are single-minded, deeply passionate and inflexible in a way that views any compromise as a failure. Populist movements seek to arouse and empower the powerless to force change on the powerful. As with all populist movements, the Tea Party is a “grass-roots” (although some of suggested it is more like AstroTurf) bottom up rather than top down movement. Successful populist movements cause followers to lead and leaders to follow.
The Good Bad and Ugly of the Tea Party Movement
The Tea Party is a positive force in the current political climate because it motivates those who have not been involved in the political process to become so. The efforts of the Tea Party has forced government leaders to at least acknowledge and focus on the critical economic issues of deficit spending, national debt and the growth of government. The Tea Party is the living embodiment what James Madison envisioned when he argued in the Federalist Papers that, “in a republican form of government special interest groups would counterbalance one another and avert tyrannical majorities.”
A no-less passionate focus of the Tea Party has been on individual liberties and the encroachment of government on those freedoms. And yet, at the same time Tea Party members vociferously argue for individual rights, they universally reject those same rights for individuals who might be gay or for Muslims who want to open a mosque anywhere near Ground Zero. Alexander Hamilton may have been thinking about this type of conflict when he wrote, “liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”
The deep passion with which Tea Party members seek to achieve their goals is what gives the movement cohesion and power, but it is also what threatens to make the movement irrelevant. That’s because unbridled passion is the mortal enemy of reason. Passion subverts pragmatism. It was the British philosopher Bertrand Russell who aptly identified this conflict between passion and reason when he wrote, “The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder’s lack of rational conviction.”
One consistent, passionate cry from the Tea Party is for America to return to a strict interpretation of the original intent of the United States Constitution. This is a wonderful, good-feeling rally cry, but the problem is that it is based on a false premise; and it is passion that blinds the Tea Party members to recognize this. The beauty of the constitution is that it’s original intent was to be flexible and open to future interpretation. The framers of the constitution attempted to craft a document for the ages, not the times. To accomplish this objective, the construction of the constitution was more an outline of the proposed government, than a strict and rigid document. Indeed, the most persistent argument raised by those who opposed the ratification of the constitution was that it was too vague and open to interpretation that could lead to abuse. The Tea Party should be careful what they wish for, because if they want to go to the original intent of the constitution then they will have to deal with the beliefs of those who wrote it. Those who wrote and signed the constitution believed that creating a strong central government was necessary to avoid anarchy and to guarantee both the nation’s survival and the preservation of individual liberties. The ultimate intent of the constitution was to balance freedom with order, not to define freedom or order. That was left open for the future.
This comfortable but unreasonable desire to return to the past, rather than to seek new solutions to move forward is another reason why the Tea Party will lose its influence. Because it is known (and we tend to remember only the good times) the past always seems simpler, easier and longed for more that the future, which is unknown. Unfortunately for the Tea Party we are going to have to live in the future, not the past.
And the Moral of the Story …
As with similar populist groups of the past, the Tea Party movement plays a vital and important role in the ongoing story of America. The Tea Party is, by its very existence, evidence of the freedom we enjoy. We should rejoice and embrace to presence of movements such as the Tea Party, but at the same time, we should recognize that the simplicity of the ideas, the passion of beliefs and the commitment to be part of the process is the way to rile a government, not run it. The inability of populist movements such as the Tea Party to move beyond simplicity, slogans and passion prevents them from accepting reason, pragmatism and compromise; and this only hampers the ability of leaders to solve the very problems that caused the rise of the Tea Party in the first place.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in defense of the constitution as the best compromise available, “If mankind were to resolve to agree in no institution of government until every part of it had been adjusted to the most exact standard of perfection, society would soon become a general scene of anarchy and the world a desert.”
Take heed Tea Party!