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5 Things Conservatives Should Be Wary of in the Tea Party

4 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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