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5 Things Conservatives Should Be Wary of in the Tea Party

5 years ago
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While some view the Tea Party as a continuation of the Ross Perot movement, it may be better understood as the third wave of modern conservatism (the first being Barry Goldwater's victory over the GOP establishment in 1964, and the second being the rise of the Christian right in the late 1970s).

For conservatives, both of these movements were largely positive; both paved the way for Ronald Reagan's 1980 election.

In both instances, the newcomers were first viewed as "barbarians at the gate" by the threatened insiders (who sometimes compared the rabble to something you would see in the bar scene in "Star Wars").

Many insiders view Tea Party candidates and activists with similar skepticism. But while some conservatives are threatened, most view the Tea Party as merely an influx of new conservative troops they can co-opt to support their causes. For these folks, it's important to note that the new faces could also change what it means to be a conservative. After all, when Christian conservatives became involved in politics, their involvement certainly had similar consequences. This may or may not be entirely positive.

Tea PartyWith that in mind, I was honored to be part of a panel discussion yesterday at the conservative Leadership Institute (for which I worked from 1999-2003) on "The Conservative Movement and the Tea Party." Though I opened my remarks with the caveat that I believe the Tea Party to be an incredibly positive force on American politics -- never content with simply being popular -- I focused my remarks on "Five Things Movement Conservatives Should Be Wary of in the Tea Party."

As you can imagine, many in the crowd did not appreciate this counter-intuitive angle. Conservatives are rightly frustrated with President Obama's leftward lurch and are in no mood for introspection or constructive criticism -- even if offered with the best intentions. After all, if you truly believe the end of the world is near, you're less likely to want to engage in debate over what might be perceived as abstract ideas.

This, of course, is foolish. Debate and discussion are healthy, and failure to examine oneself is hubris. As such, here are my thoughts on potential problems for conservatives -- again, with the understanding that there is much more right than wrong with the Tea Party:

1. Lack of reverence for conservative leaders and organizations. It has been my observation that many of today's new activists are quick to conflate being "old" with being part the establishment. This is probably natural, but it is not always helpful. To be sure, some conservative leaders have been corrupted or co-opted. But many joined the conservative fight when it was not popular or profitable to do so, and have nobly dedicated their lives to this cause. This should be honored, not dismissed. A tenet of Burkean conservatism is respect for tradition and accumulated wisdom. Conservatives would be foolish to abandon the wisdom of elders, much less eschew the infrastructure that has been created over recent decades, merely because it existed prior to 2010.

2. A move away from social conservatism. Just as the rise of Christian conservatives in the late 1970s and 1980s profoundly changed the conservative movement, the Tea Party has the potential to change it once again, possibly making it more libertarian. While many Tea Partiers are full-spectrum conservatives, it's fair to say that government spending and the failed economy are the galvanizing forces right now. As such, it's fair to conclude that an influx of activists concerned primarily about fiscal issues might change the complexion of the conservative movement. This could be good or bad (depending on your views), but it is a phenomenon worth considering.

3. Anti-Intellectualism. Unlike liberalism, which began as a patchwork of disparate interest groups seeking power, conservatism began as a coherent intellectual philosophy. But in recent decades, conservatives have mocked "pointy-headed liberal intellectuals," creating an impression that intelligence is almost something to be skeptical of. While I am certainly not advocating elitism, I would strongly encourage conservatives to reject populism. Conservative candidates who can eloquently advocate for conservative positions have a better chance of impacting the culture than do demagogues who cannot effectively communicate their philosophy to the masses.

4. Purges. For years, I have been critical of "conservatives" who consistently throw stones at other conservatives. Having said that, there is also a danger of Jacobinism, where even fellow revolutionaries are purged -- not for philosophical apostasy but for not being "team players." In recent weeks, we have seen conservative writers labeled RINO's (Republicans in name only) for questioning the background of a Tea Party candidate.

5. The Victim Card. Recently, a prominent conservative voice accused Karl Rove of sexism. While sexism certainly does exist, fair criticism and analysis of a female political candidate does not constitute sexism. Though winning is important, how you play the game is, perhaps, more telling. Conservatives should avoid copying the tactics of the left.

You may have noticed that missing from my list is "electability." Many analysts such as Charles Krauthammer and Karl Rove have argued that the Tea Party risks costing the GOP a majority in the Senate by nominating candidates who aren't ready for prime time. This is not a concern for me. As the DC Examiner's Tim Carney noted, this is collateral damage. You've got to take the good with the bad, and clearly the Tea Party has given us more good candidates than bad ones.

Note: The aforementioned concerns do not keep me up at night. It would be wrong to obsess over these concerns, or to let them diminish from the positives the Tea Party has given us. But it is also foolish to avoid introspection. These are not issues to worry over, but they are issues to keep an eye on as we go forward.

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"Conservative candidates who can eloquently advocate for conservative positions have a better chance of impacting the culture than do demagogues who cannot effectively communicate their philosophy to the masses." Oh, dear, of dear, how wrong can you be? ... By definition, sir, demagogues communicate far more effectively with the masses than anyone else -- that is why they are demagogues. They communicate at an emotional, visceral, level that ordinary politicians cannot match. They are not intellectual in the accepted sense, but they work hard and are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. They know that most ordinary voters do not reach a conclusion by process of mental calculation, but by a series of emotional responses. If you feed them the right emotion, you get the response you want. Mrs Palin's hallmark intro of (approximately) "It's good to be here in X where you're still clingin' to yer guns and yer religion", is an outstanding example. The other hallmark of demagogues is that the political establishment always underestimates them. When the establisment finally realizes its mistake, it shifts to trying to absorb and control them. But by then it is too late, and they emerge fully fledged onto the stage of power riding a tidal wave of public emotion so strong, ther is no further hope of restraining them. I don't suppose anyone will take much notice of what I have to say. You are probably all too busy debating the finer points of some obscure piece of policy that would bore the voters to death, even if they could understand it; which is another way of saying you are far too disengaged with the folks "clingin' to their guns and their religion". Just remember that all those folks have votes, and don't say I did not warn you. Charles Langley

September 25 2010 at 9:06 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

It's amazing to me how,Cnn, Fox news and Msnbc have been reporting on the Tea party since before the presidential election and still to this day haven't gotten a handle as to what it really is..I think Ron Paul was the ultimate messenger as to what the movement is all about..I challenge all these news agencies to go back and listen to the debates and honestly ask yourself who was voicing the truth all along..

September 25 2010 at 9:04 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

" You've got to take the good with the bad, and clearly the Tea Party has given us more good candidates than bad ones." Boy, is this statement off base. ODonnel, and Paul are considered " good candidates? " I guess, if you're on the fringe right, that would be a true statement. Odonnel has no electability ( A future FOX talk show host at best ). The far right is in for a shock. They've counted unhatched chickens. Odonnel's already worried about future debates, which sooner or later, she'll either put up or shut up. Characters like Palin and Odonnel know thier weak points, and that is when they have to debate. Right now, Odonnel is memorizing " her favorite rulings by the Supreme Court." Can't get caught on a question Palin had no answer for. November is going to be a great month, even if Dems lose a few seats. People will see, once and for all that the Tea Party has nothing new to offer, nor any way of backing up their promises made while campaigning. Either way, the Tea Party has assured Obama a second term, something they never wanted to see. Good luck.

September 25 2010 at 8:50 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I have not seen very many constructive suggestions coming from the Tea Party Movement regarding the problems facing the people of this country. The economy of this country was in need of a stimulus 2 years ago, and there was a need for a reasoned discussion of what form that stimulus should take. It was - and still is - important to minimize the occurrence of people missing meals or sleeping on park benches, and at the same time control deficit spending to make sure we don't run into an inflationary economic collapse. All I have seen from the Tea Party on that subject is a lot of shouting about the deficit, but no constructive ideas about what we should do about hungry children. I will offer this suggestion about what form the next stimulus should take. It should consist of payments to existing food banks and homeless shelters, to enable them to handle increased demand for their services; and payments to local, county, and state governments, for the purpose of preventing the layoffs of police officers, teachers, and fire fighters who would otherwise end up being laid off. To avoid creating an incentive for state and local governments to depend permanently on federal stimulus money, there should be the condition attached to that money that the governor of any state receiving stimulus money - and also the mayor of any city receiving stimulus money - should take a 1 percent reduction in pay, to remain in effect for as long as that city or state continued receiving federal stimulus money. You would not see any mayors or governors missing any meals because of that, but you would see them looking for ways to create a good business climate in their cities and states.

September 25 2010 at 8:41 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

The Tea Partiers are first of all, ignorant of history. Their very choice of their name bespeaks hypocrisy on a grand scale. The Tea Party was created by the insurance companies to oppose healthcare reform as such an act of lobbying the Sons of Liberty protested by dumping the tea of the British East India Co. (BEIC)into Boston harbor. Indeed,its a great lie that the American revolution was a tax revolt, Americans taxed themselves at 6 times the rate the crown did to pay for the war. No it was a war of self-determination as we had no say in Parliament, and thus no say in the passage of any crown taxes. The Tea Tax was passed thru the lobbying and bribery of the BEIC, as the company and its agents stood to gain commissions for collecting the tax. Geo. Washington's first significant act as President was to raise an army to crush the Whiskey Tax Rebellion. (Violence was avoided by the scattering of the rebels in advance of the army thus allowing GW to pardon them.) Course rightists have always liked to identify themselves with the founders even though America's founders were the most liberal collection of men the earth has ever seen. Course they also claim to be Christians while rejecting Christ's liberal values. Edmund Burke was not a conservative, he was a Whig, he merely wrote a critique of the French revolution perhaps ignoring the injustices the French people suffered under the French Court were vastly greater than those Americans had suffered under the crown. He was sympathic to the American revolution.

September 25 2010 at 8:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

So this author is merely a "credentialed" blogger who has appeared on television newstalk shows a few times? How does that give him any credibility? Anybody with two cents, an opinion and online access can become a blogger. I'd be more impressed if he were a seasoned columnist for a large newspaper or magazine.

September 25 2010 at 8:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I keep hearing the TP talk about morals, morals, our founding farthers, ect.. Read the biographys of our founding would be hard pressed to find too many morals there. Maybe you would find out what they were talking about in the song Yankee Doodle went to Town Riding on a Pony..and learn why he stuck a feather in his hat...Then there is a little story on the news today about a preacher in Atlanta, Ga...was he accused of bad mouthing the tea party..then when a prominent congressman proudly proclaimed he kept his copy of the constitution in his pocket and displayed it to the cameras..he probably did'nt notice he was holding a copy of the bill of rights....nothig like an informed TP...

September 25 2010 at 7:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
George & Nancy

Jim, thanks for your concern, but I get the original meaning of the founding fathers. Men is a term applied to the human race. It doesn't exactly spell out women or children, but we are covered under the all inclusive title. You could be right however. There are enough leftists out there to exclude a good portion of the populace. Nice try. Nancy

September 25 2010 at 7:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Boris Vian

Liberalism is rooted in both the Renaissance and Protestantism of medival Europe, and indeed the mover of all intellectual movements. Whereas conservatives, like the Vatican, were/are trying to squash everything that is out of their very little world. The conservatives are still without any intellectuals, or without any intellectual concepts, ideas. Conservative ideology is nothing else but appeals to the most primitive insticts of the human being, such as "protection of territory", "hording", unrealistic/clinical fears of other humans, desire to eliminate, annihilate anything individual or different based on ethnicity and/or religion, etc. Ans as good old FDR pointed out, while not every conservatives are idiots, surely all idiots are conservatives!

September 25 2010 at 7:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"We are about getting our country back to the vision our founding fathers had." You may be OK George, but Nancy may be in for trouble... when our founding fathers wrote "All men are created equal" they meant all white, land owning men. Nobody else needed to try to vote back then.

September 25 2010 at 7:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to JBD's comment

Jim...thank you for your comment. So many have really forgotten our history. It really wasn't a pretty period to live in particularly if you had to serve as an indentured servant. sharecropper or slave.

September 26 2010 at 1:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I saw an historian speaking about a syndrome where people have the tendency to look at and make judgment about history by using today's standards. I can't remember the name of the syndrome, but I find it happens a lot. I won't get into all the details here, but the majority of the founding fathers were clearly against slavery. There had been few serious efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery prior to the Founding Fathers. They are the ones who got the ball rolling on the anti-slavery movement. Jim - I'm guessing you are a child of the 1960's?

September 26 2010 at 9:14 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


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