Cliff May

The USA Today headline the day after the elections: “Voters Send Angry Message.” Time’s two-word explanation for the electoral tsunami: “voter rage.” The Economist’s cover: “Angry America.” This is now the dominant narrative, the new conventional wisdom. It’s a bum rap.

To be sure, many independents who were inspired by candidate Barack Obama in 2008 used their votes in 2010 to express disappointment with President Barack Obama, his agenda, his priorities and his party. But disappointed is not the same as angry and besides: independents are not the ones the headline writers have in mind. Nor, obviously, are those who voted for losing liberal candidates. They are talking about conservatives and, in particular, those conservatives who identify as members of the Tea Party movement.

What evidence suggests that Tea Partiers are peasants with pitchforks? There is none. Recall the huge Tea Party rally in Washington in August: Its theme was “restoring honor” -- hardly an expression of fury. And no Washington demonstrators in memory have left behind a cleaner mall. Rarely are irate people so fastidious.

Among the candidates the Tea Party most enthusiastically supported was the even-tempered Marco Rubio, now on his way to the U.S. Senate from Florida. They also favored failed candidates Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada. You can say O’Donnell and Angle were not ready for primetime. But you can’t credibly charge that they either displayed or cultivated anger. They did not refer to their political opponents as “enemies” -- as President Obama did when speaking of Republicans to a Hispanic group.

What too many in the media have refused to recognize is that Tea Party members are not calling for a revolution – they’re calling for a restoration. They take the U.S. Constitution seriously. They prefer the system of government designed by the Founders – eschewing political correctness they might even say Founding Fathers – to other options now on offer. That does not endear them to those who fancy themselves “progressives.” But neither does it suggest that they are “full of inchoate rage” as Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, wrote.

Tea Party members believe in small and limited government. What’s so great about smallness and limitations? The answer does not go without saying: Big governments, governments with unlimited powers, inevitably threaten individual freedom – always have, always will. And freedom is a value for which Americans for centuries have fought and died; a value most Americans still hold dear – though, distressingly, others now seem to regard the idea of liberty as quaint.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.