Style is character: Advice for the tea party’s next five years

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake has penned an interesting post which seeks to answer the question: Why is Arizona so often the flash point in these hot-button culture war questions?

Blake proposes some interesting hypotheses, including public financing of campaigns and term limits. These things sound good, but there are unintended consequences.

Regarding the public financing of campaigns, for example, Blake notes that “Arizona political watchers say this system has lowered the bar when it comes to who is viable and allowed ultra-conservative candidates to get the money they need to win primaries.”

The problem isn’t ultra-conservative candidates, it is unserious candidates. We tend to conflate callowness with ideological purity, and this is a mistake. Wisdom and maturity and length of tenure do not equal squishiness any more than quixotic pursuits or freshness define conservatism. (Note: This is not intended to be a commentary on the recent controversy pitting gay rights against religious liberty, but rather, a more general look at the larger phenomenon.)

Speaking of this phenomenon, we just celebrated the five year anniversary of the tea party. And while it is fashionable for conservatives to pander to this group, they have been a mixed bag (the movement obviously deserves kudos for sweeping in conservatives like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Pat Toomey, et al.).

The challenge the tea party movement will face in the next five years will be to grow in maturity, while simultaneously avoiding being co-opted or corrupted — to avoid turning into a racket. This is not an easy task. When Blake speaks of “lowering the bar” one need look only to the tea party candidates in Texas right now for a prime example of how nascent populist movements can also attract fringe candidates.

Professionalism (by which I mean acting in a professional manner) and conservatism aren’t mutually exclusive.

There is a notion that Beltway conservatives turn up their noses at the hoi palloi, based on shibboleths. And I suppose this is (unfortunately) sometimes true. It is a mistake to assume that real America ought to have the same aesthetic sensibilities as the denizens of the Acela corridor, but it’s also a mistake to assume that the establishment (you know, the people who have spent decades studying politics and watching candidates come and go) have accrued zero wisdom regarding how to identify winners and con artists.

Conservatism is at least partly about prudence and wisdom, and so when I see candidates who are demonstrably imprudent — who run sloppy, unserious campaigns — who engage in cheap demagoguery — I’m reminded of Joan Didion’s axiom that “style is character.” (Note: This is very consistent with the philosophy that one’s work reflects who they are as a person.)

While conservatives should reject elitism, the impulse to embrace flamboyant leaders based almost solely on their anti-establishment rhetoric and newness, must be resisted. Candidates and leaders should be evaluated based on their commitment to the cause, their competence, and their character.

“Think classy, you’ll be classy,” advised Kevin Costner’s “Crash” Davis character in Bull Durham. He was scolding his young protégé for being sloppy. “If you win twenty in the show,” Crash continued, “you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win twenty in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”

A more modern baseball story: Oriole’s manager Buck Showalter recently earned our respect. When a young prospect wasn’t familiar with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, Showalter sent him home to write a report on the Oriole great. This sort of leadership is all too rare, and frankly, I’m half surprised Showalter wasn’t forced to apologize for subjecting this young man to a homework assignment. We need more leaders like Showalter.

The impulse to “begin the world over again” is a radical one, but there is at least a hint of this worldview in a generation that doesn’t respect its elders — that wants to make it to the show without paying its dues. As the saying goes, “politics is downstream from culture.” Should we be surprised that our immediate gratification/get-rich-quick society would impact even conservatism?

A few years ago, I was stunned when a friend of mine who had worked on a couple of presidential campaigns had no idea who Mike Deaver was.

Somebody should have given him a homework assignment.

Tags : tea party
Matt K. Lewis