How the Tea Party can win the left

Between the debt ceiling showdown and the Michele Bachmann insurgency, America’s liberals seem more sickened than ever by the Tea Party. Taking advantage, their media and political elites are hard at work hardening Tea Partier stereotypes into fear symbols of economic narcissism and religious fanaticism.

If it aspires to be more than an embattled vanguard, the Tea Party must defeat this distorted view. If it does, the movement will be able to appeal to the entire American political spectrum. The only question is whether Tea Partiers have the will to do so.

The ability to make good on this apparently outlandish claim is strengthening every week. Democrats have not been so disillusioned with a sitting president of their party since Robert F. Kennedy ran in 1968 to unseat Lyndon Johnson. Liberal confidence in the most basic principles of Democratic rule have been shaken to the core by Barack Obama’s intensification of Bush-era policies that even divide the right.

The left cannot field a challenge to what increasingly strikes good-faith liberals as the rule of a corporatist police state. The Green Party is a husk. The radicals are a rump. Outside the right, there is now no viable political alternative to Obamaism — the greatest partisan disappointment in generations.

But until Republicans make some fundamental changes to their party platform, the left is prepared to accept from the Democratic Party many generations of abuse and depression.

This is why liberal elites are deep into a crash program to hardwire the public mind with their caricature of Tea Partiers as a virulent, violent fringe peddling moral hatred and social suffering.

Some activists drawn to the success of the Tea Party are not helping combat this campaign. But studies show that Tea Partiers split about evenly between leaning libertarian and conservative — at a time when conservatism is more aligned with constitutionalism than it’s been since Barry Goldwater (not coincidentally, Lyndon Johnson’s other presidential challenger).

Even more importantly, the Tea Party will inexorably and increasingly be defined by the field of possibility that it has opened up in American politics. Liberal commentators who blame the debt ceiling impasse on Tea Party extremism, for instance, are not just politically but cognitively mistaken. It is the corporatist wing of the Republican Party, muscled up by the likes of Grover Norquist and Wall Street economists, that insists crass government subsidies must be treated like sacred tax cuts. The conceptual space opened by the Tea Party permits Republicans — and not just Republicans — to call subsidies “subsidies” and treat them accordingly, in the name of a political liberty more consequential and more human than economic orthodoxy.

The advent of the Tea Party has been momentous because it has reintroduced a first principle which partisan politics had virtually strangled away: that the only way to salvage our failed economic system is by first restoring our political liberty.

To be sure, liberals care about liberty in their bones. But increasingly they care most of all about human flourishing. Liberals fear that they must stop at nothing to ensure that conservative Jesus freaks and libertarian Rand freaks don’t team up to prevent America’s worst off from achieving the kind of human flourishing that could be enjoyed by all.