Tea Party at the Crossroads

Third parties have had an unbroken record of failure in American presidential politics. So it was refreshing to see in the Tea Party an insurgent movement, mainly of people who were not professional politicians, but who nevertheless had the good sense to see that their only chance of getting their ideals enacted into public policies was within one of the two major parties.

More important, the Tea Party was an insurgent movement that was not trying to impose some untried Utopia, but to restore the lost heritage of America that had been eroded, undermined or just plain sold out by professional politicians.

What the Tea Party was attempting was conservative, but it was also insurgent — if not radical — in the sense of opposing the root assumptions behind the dominant political trends of our times. Since those trends have included the erosion, if not the dismantling, of the Constitutional safeguards of American freedom, what the Tea Party was attempting was long overdue.

ObamaCare epitomized those trends, since its fundamental premise was that the federal government had the right to order individual Americans to buy what the government wanted them to buy, whether they wanted to or not, based on the assumption that Washington elites know what is good for us better than we know ourselves.

The Tea Party’s principles were clear. But their tactics can only be judged by the consequences.

Since the Tea Party sees itself as the conservative wing of the Republican Party, its supporters might want to consider what was said by an iconic conservative figure of the past, Edmund Burke: “Preserving my principles unshaken, I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”

Fundamentally, “rational” means the ability to make a ratio — that is, to weigh one thing against another. Burke makes a key distinction between believing in a principle and weighing the likely consequences of taking a particular action to advance that principle.

There is no question that the principles of anyone who believes in the freedom of American citizens from arbitrary government dictates like ObamaCare — unauthorized by anything in the Constitution and forbidden by the 10th Amendment — must oppose this quantum leap forward in the expansion of the power of government.

There is nothing ambiguous about the principle. The only question is about the tactics, the Tea Party’s attempt to defund ObamaCare. The principle would justify repealing ObamaCare. So the only reason for the Tea Partyers’ limiting themselves to trying to defund this year was a recognition that repealing it was not within their power.

The only question then is: was defunding ObamaCare within their power? Most people outside the Tea Party recognized that defunding ObamaCare was also beyond their power — and events confirmed that.

It was virtually inconceivable from the outset that the Tea Party could force the Democrats who controlled the Senate to pass the defunding bill, even if the Tea Party had the complete support of all Republican Senators — much less pass it with a majority large enough to override President Obama’s certain veto.

Therefore was the Tea Party-led attempt to defund ObamaCare something that met Burke’s standard of a “rational endeavour”?

With the chances of making a dent in ObamaCare by trying to defund it being virtually zero, and the Republican Party’s chances of gaining power in either the 2014 or 2016 elections being reduced by the public’s backlash against that futile attempt, there was virtually nothing to gain politically and much to lose.

However difficult it might be to repeal ObamaCare after it gets up and running, the odds against repeal, after the 2014 and 2016 elections, are certainly no worse than the odds against defunding it in 2013. Winning those elections would improve the odds.

If the Tea Party made a tactical mistake, that is not necessarily fatal in politics. People can even learn from their mistakes — but only if they admit to themselves that they were mistaken. Whether the Tea Party can do that may determine not only its fate but the fate of an America that still needs the principles that brought Tea Party members together in the first place.

  • Grantsinmypants

    Do you know what people who came to Washington with strong principles, but who decided to couch those principles in order to “live to fight another day” are called? They’re called Republicans. If the Tea Party caucus hadn’t risked political oblivion by trying to defund Obamacare, by the time it was ready to capitalize on the political clout it had gained from not doing so, it would no longer have any desire to do so. This is what happens when people calling themselves “principled” are really just an ad hoc group of reactionaries, upset about the immediate consequences of much deeper and wider philosophical trends (many of which they themselves are just as responsible for as their opponents are). Yes, such people are more philosophically consistent (read: less philosophically inconsistent) than “the establishment” that they oppose, but that doesn’t make them philosophically consistent themselves.

    Anyone, back in 2009, who saw a whole bunch of people organizing a grassroots political movement that was intentionally civil and proudly conformed to all of the laws on the books – and yet naming themselves after another bunch of people who went outside of the law – people who were willing to risk suffering immense personal consequences if unsuccessful – could have predicted their failure. Anyone who stopped to examine that curiousity would have realized that the Tea Party’s faliure was inevitable because, unlike their opposition which IS willing to go outside of the law if necessary (eg: the Obama Administration using the IRS to harass Tea Partiers), these “revolutionaries” don’t have the understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of THEIR OWN political ideology (individual rights) that their opponents do to theirs. They are paralyzed in the face of deeper discussions about philosophy (especially morality) whereas their opponents are not.

    All the Tea Party, by adopting that name, has accomplished is to equate petty, reactionary, half-measures with truly brave and consistent REVOLUTIONARY MEASURES in the minds of the wider public – which means that should the latter ever become necessary (if they aren’t already), it will be that much more difficult to motivate people to engage in them (since “the Tea Party failed when they tried it.”)

    The Tea Party illuminated the fact that there’s much more at stake in today’s politics than the establishment would have people believe, and it’s actions continued to remind people of that, but that’s all it could have been expected to do. It’s personnel were never equipped to explain just what those things were that were at stake. Let’s hope that those who ARE EQUIPPED – who will unfortunately now have to call themselves “The REAL Tea Party” – can rise to prominence as a result of the Tea Party’s legacy. Afterall, the need for such measures are coming whether anyone likes it or not.

  • veeper

    I agree……

    From what I have observed of the current Tea Party movement it is a group of older people going about having yet another form of social activities with a “patriots” theme as their new reason for having these social activity get-to-gathers.

    They are not willing to sacrifice time or money except on such yearly activities as parade floats, veterans baskets, laying wreaths, tea party cruises, dances and and other activities they were already doing before a Tea party was formed.

    They have become so dis-interested in the direction and current happenings of the country that they now set aside all Tea party concerns, meetings, activities and put everything on hold because the holidays are busy times for their families.

    In short……there really is no good reason for the Tea party to continue it’s self-delusion that it is doing anything.

    What America must have is a Shays rebellion Spirit not another social group for seniors.

  • 5ulman

    The reality is, they have lost the battle. They have not made any effort to promote their positive ideas and instead have handed gift after gift to the Democrats. I think the biggest problem is what Democrats would characterise as the ‘wingnut’ faction. There’s too much religion, too much fire and brimstone, and for me this is in total opposition to the true ideal of individual rights.Most significantly, it has given the left-leaning parts of the media a great throw to run with, and at times the movement has just looked embarrassing.It’s easy for me to sit there and write that but I think there’s a long way to go before they’re even seen as little more than a radicalised wing of the republican party.

  • veeper

    Tea party groups all over America have absolutely squandered 2 years.

    They have allowed their Republican roots to come out in them. Turning more people away and running more people off.

    The sameo sameo republican attitudes have come to the forefront of Tea party members…..

    They do not have a sufficient base now and they will ensure that it gets smaller as time goes by.

    Their only hope is for another democratic disaster to go along with obamacare….

    just as in the past…..any republican or Tea party gains will not be by their efforts but by the errors of the opposition.

    Tea party now has the UN-Welcome mat out……

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