The Tea Party movement has been one of the most fascinating phenomena of modern politics. In November of 2008, Barack Obama rode the hope and change wave into the White House and Democrats racked up huge margins in the House and Senate. Democrats talked about a permanent political realignment, talking heads across the spectrum delivered the eulogies for the modern conservative movement and insiders talked about Republicans being in the political wilderness for decades. Against this backdrop, a grassroots movement was born.
In many ways, the birth of the Tea Party movement was as counter-culture and as counter-intuitive as it could get. While establishment Republicans tried to parrot Democratic talking points, and as GOP strategists talked about moving the party to the middle, the Tea Party movement looked like a political dinosaur — laser focused not on “making government work” but on getting government out of our lives.
Now, just two years removed from the Obama election, we are witnessing a political Jurassic Park. The once believed extinct conservative movement has been reborn — and it’s all because of the Tea Party movement.
Like all fledgling movements, the Tea Party movement has experienced growing pains, but as a newly energized Republican Party prepares for a November wave, the Tea Party stands at an important crossroads.
For almost two years, big-government conservatives like Tony Perkins have attacked the Tea Party for not focusing enough on their narrow big-government agenda. Prominent big-government conservatives like Mike Huckabee attacked conservative events like CPAC for being too dominated by libertarian tea partiers. Now, in a shameless 180, these same folks want to co-opt the Tea Party’s movement and message. They have realized that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Nothing would make the left happier than to see the Tea Party taken over by big-government social conservatives. Liberals and their friends in the mainstream media know how politically poisonous big-government conservatism was to the conservative movement. Nothing would make them happier than to have the keys to the Tea Party turned over to the same folks who brought us embarrassing electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008 and who demoralized the conservative movement.
Big-government conservatives know too that their message is political poison — they have watched as the American people, and the conservative movement in particular, has turned away from seeking government as the solution to the social, economic and spiritual challenges facing our country.
As the power of the message of big-government conservatives has waned, so has their influence in Washington. Terrified of losing their seat at the table, the Tony Perkins of the world now want to grab the reigns of the Tea Party movement to make themselves and their movement relevant again.
The Tea Party shouldn’t allow itself to be used by the big-government conservatives to keep their seat at the table. Indeed, the Tea Party movement shouldn’t be looking for a seat at the table at all — it should be focused, instead, on turning the table over.
This doesn’t mean that freedom-loving social conservatives shouldn’t be a part of the Tea Party movement. Nor does it mean, with all due respect to the Mitch Daniels of the world, that there needs to be a “truce” on social issues.
Social conservatives should be welcomed into the Tea Party movement; indeed anyone who understands the need to limit the reach of the federal government should be welcome in the Tea Party. However, to quote Dick Cheney, freedom means freedom for everyone. Accordingly, it is fundamentally incompatible to call yourself a limited-government conservative on one hand, while on the other hand seeking to expand the federal government’s reach into boardrooms, bedrooms or living rooms across America.
The truth is that the battle on social issues can and should continue. These debates are important and healthy for a free people. The front lines of these battles, however, shouldn’t be at the ballot box. The federal government cannot teach our children values. The federal government cannot protect the American family from disintegration. The federal government cannot shape our culture.
It is the responsibility of individuals and families and religious institutions to determine the future of the so-called “culture wars.” If conservatives want to promote a culture of life, promote the family, and promote traditional values, then the federal government is the absolute last place they should be turning. Let’s be honest, Justin Bieber’s Twitter feed has more impact on American culture than all of Washington, DC combined.
The Tea Party can become the umbrella movement for all the diverse members of the leave-me-alone coalition. The Tea Party should welcome all who seek to limit government’s reach and empower individuals. The Tea Party, however, should not be tempted by a seat at the table, nor should it allow its message to be co-opted by the Tony Perkins of the world.
Christopher Barron serves as Chairman of the Board of GOProud, the nation’s only national organization for gay conservatives and their allies. He is also a Republican political consultant.