“There prevails in America a conservative understanding of a popular character that is not Populism.”
Russell Kirk, 1988
Let’s just say it, the Tea Party movement has far more in common with the French Poujadist movement of the 1950s then it does with authentic American conservatism. Of course, this is quite the heretical statement to make these days since nearly all wings of the conservative movement from the Weekly Standard to the Ron Paul libertarians are claiming ownership and their stake in the movement. But jumping on a bandwagon is always an easy thing to do, what is difficult is to not submit to peer pressure. There are several reasons why conservatives should be hesitant of inviting themselves to the next Tea Party rally.
1. It is a populist driven movement- As the above quote from the late conservative icon, Russell Kirk demonstrates, conservatism is not populism. When factions of the American Right have been seduced in times past by a troubadour playing a populist hymn, it usually brings out the worst in them as Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on the paranoid style in American politics so eloquently stated. So, when one sees signs held up at Tea Party rallies comparing Obama to an African witch doctor or signs implying taxpayers are Jews for Obama’s gas ovens there should be no surprise, its paranoid life imitating paranoid art.
The Founders were well versed in their history. They knew especially the fate of Greek city-state democracies that fell to demagogues. Alexander Hamilton warned Americans about, “ times of such commotion as the present, while the passions of men are worked up to an uncommon pitch, there is great danger of fatal extremes” and later spoke of populist politicians that “begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people.”
The other conservative Founding Fathers (i.e. John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, Thomas Sedgwick, Rufus King, Fisher Ames et. al.) were on the same page with Hamilton. They saw populism as the dark arts of the ultra-democrat and rabble-rouser. Orestes Brownson would later in the 19th Century refer to the creed of the populist as “The people sovereign; the people are divine; the people are infallible and impeccable.” Needless to say, Brownson wrote that this is not a conservative creed nor should the conservative have any interest in seeing it prevail.
Try and imagine if you can, Brownson or Hamilton barking like a seal the next time, FOX’s Laura Ingraham at a Tea Party rally, compares paying more taxes to the Nazi Holocaust.
2.Tax Cuts as an Ideology- Aside from populism, authentic conservatism is the opposite of ideology. Russell Kirk spoke on the fact that “Perhaps it would be well, most of the time, to use this word “conservative” as an adjective chiefly. For there exists no Model Conservative, and conservatism is the negation of ideology: it is a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.”
The notion of cutting taxes has been elevated to a sacrosanct ideology by the Tea Party movement. According to this ideology, Americans are taxed beyond their means, tax receipts from the government are higher than they have been in decades and the answer to the Federal deficit is to cut taxes “like Reagan” and watch the economy take off like a rocket.
Taxes are actually lower as a percentage of the Federal GNP, then it has been in years (31.5%). When polled by FrumForum several months ago during a Tea Party protest in Washington DC, the majority of Tea Partiers polled said the percentage was on average 42.06%. When asked what a median American family pays in taxes (with a $50,000 income), those same Tea Partiers said on average it was $12,710 when it fact, the typical $50,000 family in America pays $7,500 in federal taxes. And an overwhelming number all told the pollster that taxes were much higher since President Obama had taken office in January 2009. This despite the fact that almost 50% of the stimulus package passed in 2009 was made up of tax cuts and according to the Tax Foundation, the number of income tax returns with zero liability is growing every year due to child tax credits and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Tax cut ideology indeed lives on mythology. Much like the return of the good ole days when the American Right had people like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater looking out for your tax rates. Of course, the fact that neither men believed in the tax cut ideology and would be considered RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the Tea Party today makes this nostalgia quite funny. Reagan’s tax increase of 1982 TERFA (Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act) is still adjusted for inflation, the largest tax increase in peacetime American history. Barry Goldwater voted against the Kennedy tax cuts of 1963 for fear of having an inflationary pressure on the economy.
There is nothing wrong in opposition to many forms of taxation and wanting to reform the tax system itself, but this is not what the ideology of tax cuts stands for. It believes taxes should be cut when and whenever possible regardless of the economy and thar any form of tax increase advocated by a Republican is wrong and can never be right. And if the government has to borrow money from future generations to pay for a tax cut, that’s fine.
3. ‘Just cut Spending’ as the second response to every question- This is a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Just to give an illustration, Rep. Ron Paul sometimes called ‘Dr. No’ for his opposition to so much federal spending has three people challenging him this year in his Texas congressional district in the GOP primary, all three from the Tea party movement. As reported by columnist Davie Weigel, part of their opposition to Congressmen Paul is because of his stance on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and against congressional pork. And in a recent survey of Tea Party activists, they stated they want government cut down to size and to focus in on “waste” but many of them did not want Social Security or Medicare to have its benefits cut.
Currently, sixty-eight percent of the federal budget goes to defense spending and health and social security, everything else the Federal government does from border patrol to the F.B.I. to interest payments on the debt to earmarks and a ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ is in the remaining 32% of the budget.
In fairness to the Tea Party, the misplaced idea that the government wastes money on pork barrel projects is in line which the rest of the country. A recent Gallup poll found a majority of Americans believe 50 cents out of every dollar spent by the government is waste.
The stark reality is the only way to ‘cut government down to size’ would be a massive reorganization of middle class entitlements and cuts in defense spending or we could eliminate everything the federal government spends money on except for entitlements and defense. The only politician in Washington honest enough to bring forth an honest budget is Rep. Paul Ryan, his alternative budget would balance the budget without any taxes but it requires the privatization of Social Security, eliminating the tax deduction companies get for providing health insurance (which would mean employees health benefits would be treated as income) and it basically turns Medicare into a voucher system for those over 65 to go purchase health insurance in the marketplace. Perhaps when Rep. Paul Ryan supplants Sarah Palin as the star and face of the Tea Party movement, old fashion fiscal conservatives will take them more seriously.
4. Selective outrage- Now many of the former Ron Paul supporters in the Tea Party have been pointing this out for years but for many in the Tea Party movement, the outrage at deficits and government spending seem way too partisan. Where were the mass protests in 2004 when a Republican Congress passed Medicare Part D? This bill will cost all taxpayers over the next ten years over $1.2 trillion dollars and was paid for by debt; neither tax increases nor spending cuts were issued to offset the new Medicare program. Former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker has called it “the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s.”
Likewise the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in January 2009 BEFORE Obama came into office were projecting a $1.2 trillion budget deficit. Obama’s stimulus bill which many Tea Partiers claim was the cause of the beginning of the Tea Party movement added only $200 billion to that existing debt. One has to wonder, how so many can get upset over $200 billion but not over $1.2 trillion. Of course, just to add insult to injury, in the national poll taken, 57% of Tea Party members had a favorable view of former President George W. Bush. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, their partisan Republican passions forge their fetters.
Thus, its rampant populism, its tax cut dogma which has been raised as a defining ideology, its concern with waste rather than the 800lb gorilla in the room (entitlements and defense) and for too many its ‘When Democrats engage in deficit spending its worse than when Republicans do it’ argument should make any old fashion conservative weary of the Tea Party movement.