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.
At the present moment, it sounds farfetched to say that only the Tea Party can address this concern in a way that can attract liberal voters to Republican candidates. But does it sound any less farfetched to say that establishment Republicanism can gain the support of any liberals worthy of the name? Again and again, the corporatist GOP bankrolls “centrist,” “pro-business” candidates who become slaves, never masters, of identity politics. And again and again they brutally fail. Lest we forget, the ranks of the Tea Party were first swelled by just this perversity.
The cruelest possible fate awaits establishment Republicans who still hope to seduce liberals by promising slightly more take-home pay than whatever Andrew Cuomo can get you — especially in an era when the punditocracy is a-tingle at the prospect of a presidential race in which Andrew Cuomo replaces Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket.
Instead, Republican hopes hang on the ability of Tea Partiers to follow through explicitly on the great implicit promise of their movement. Political liberty increases, not decreases, human flourishing.
Here’s just one illustration. Even more important than lowering the tax burden is redirecting revenues into close enough proximity to citizens that taxes make a manifest, personal difference in the lives of people we encounter in real life. Today tax revenues disappear into the maw of Leviathan, and reappear in federal reports on aggregate populations of abstract beings whose “progress” can only be measured once they’re depersonalized into data points. And when redistributed wealth does become flesh? In, for instance, Detroit? Without a return to much greater local control of revenues, whatever their size, Americans will be closed off to liberty and the flourishing it fosters.
Government by Leviathan was conceived by Thomas Hobbes as a solution to the predicaments of a democratic age. But unlike Hobbes’s England, the U.S. is too big for his beast to function. Like a dinosaur grown so large that its circulatory system fails, any Leviathan capable of ruling America will be brought down by the sheer size and scale of the concentrated power necessary to maintain it.
The ultimate insight unleashed by the Tea Party is that political liberty must return, whatever the economic implications, because the alternative will destroy itself — at a literally incalculable cost. The return of liberty will not usher in the new dark age of suffering and superstition that liberals fear most. Rather, it will oblige individuals to be better neighbors, better citizens and better human beings — not through the dictates of law, but the realities of everyday life.
If Tea Partiers hammer away at this message, they will awaken the left to the deep alternative denied by Barack Obama. But if they obscure it with other rallying cries, Americans right and left will fight like the prisoners they are over the dwindling scraps of a failed regime.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.