Since early 2009, the Tea Party as a movement has carved out a substantial place in electoral politics and the general political conversation. Yet for a movement that has garnered so much attention and notoriety, its actual effects have been a bit underwhelming. Tea Party Republicans in the House and Senate worked furiously first to overturn Obamacare and then to defund it, to no avail. Animosity over Obamacare and spending levels eventually led to the impasse that resulted in the shutdown of our government last year and a near-constant continuing threat that our federal government will simply stop functioning. The Tea Party’s goals are admirable, but their actual results so far are lackluster, and this will continue unless they articulate a broader vision for society.
Strategically speaking, the Tea Party initially made a mistake by plunging into a war-like bunker mentality that inevitably led to standoffs with President Obama and Democrats in Congress. They underestimated the Democrats' ability to make the Tea Party look like the uncooperative guilty party. Neither side compromised, but Democrats won many of the battles for public perception. But the Tea Party has a bigger problem than strategy or failed policy – it lacks context, and this will cripple its long-term political impact. Its greatest weakness is its almost-exclusive focus on limiting government and reducing spending (look at any of the major Tea Party websites for proof – limited government and lower spending are front and center). These are great goals that gel with conservative principles, but without a broader political and moral context, these goals ring hollow.
The Tea Party's approach is understandable. Most conservatives believe in limited government and a free market, and the expansive spending of Republicans in the recent past has frustrated many conservative voters. Washington no longer represented the interests of a vast swath of American conservatives, so naturally these citizens want to push back. Conservatives have a right to be frustrated and many find the “back-to-basics” Tea Party style refreshing. Unfortunately, simply advocating for less government and lower taxes is not enough – it lacks the robust approach of traditional conservatism.
“Limited government” as a concept provides no idea of what a properly-ordered society ought to look like. It is a “no” without a “yes,” and this “no” leaves you wondering, just what kind of government does a Tea Party representative believe in? After all, we elect our representatives to govern wisely and cooperatively – not simply to oppose government action.
The Tea Party would do well to articulate a more compelling, more complete view of American society. Conservatism is about much more than limited government and lower taxes. It centers on a humble respect for the beliefs and values of the past with a prudent hesitancy towards new schemes, it believes in freedom defined by virtue, and it trusts the small and local more than the large and national. Ideas like limited government and lower taxes are mere applications of more important root conservative ideas. Unfortunately, the public face of the Tea Party often presents these applications as the core ideas, and their supporters are left with a seasoning of policy positions with no philosophical meat.
If limited government and lower spending are your core principles, the political playing field is reduced to two players: the government and the individual. In this arena, it's the freedom-loving individual vs. the power-hungry government. But true freedom is not achieved by making government impotent.
Real freedom will only be obtained through a society full of strong institutions: strong families, strong churches, strong community organizations, and yes, even strong governments. Each institution has its proper sphere of authority, and a particular role to play in forming a just society.
To be truly free, this properly-ordered society must then be populated by virtuous people. As Tocqueville declared, “[Liberty] considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”Freedom is not the mere absence of coercion. Freedom is defined in its relation to the duties of virtue, rooted in Christian principles. Conservative statesman Edmund Burke warned against any society that defines freedom as the absence of coercion:
"Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsel of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."
Traditionally, conservatives, like Burke, have embraced duty, virtue, and a rich variety of authorities. The individual-vs.-the-government approach is relatively new and, sadly, indicates that we have lost much ground to the Progressive movement's view of society. After all, it is progressives who love to see society as composed of individuals and the government – they just trust the government to care for the individuals.
Most conservatives (myself included) find a lot to like in the Tea Party’s work for limited government and free markets, but until the movement espouses and communicates a broader philosophical framework for its policy positions, it will fail to find long-term success. With the mid-term elections coming up, the Tea Party needs to consider whether it will make a change. As it stands now, neither its policies nor its principles will transform our culture without an articulation of what a just society really looks like.