By Arnold Kling
That was the name of this symposium, which I attended. In general, the conservative establishment seems to have discovered the Tea Party movement, and so in addition to the symposium I want to talk about other attempts by elite conservatives to come to terms with the Tea Party. My thoughts are below the fold.The Spring 2010 issue of the Claremont Review of Books has several assessments of the Tea Party Movement (TPM). William Voegeli writes,
It emerged at the culmination of the long project to supplant a ruling class based on social position and wealth with one based on brains. The new meritocrats…are being disparaged at Tea Party meetings and blogs by the people whom they govern.
And, of course, the feeling is mutual. The governing class would like to elect a new public.
…A leadership class that actually improved ordinary Americans’ security and opportunities would be forgiven condescension worse than Obama’s. it’s when the people running the country are both disrespectful and ineffectual that folks get angry.
Of course, if this is a Hayekian moment, as I believe it is, then the governing class is bound to be ineffectual.
…it’s not clear that America has a relief establishment warming up in the bullpen
Voegeli says that the establishment in the 1960’s, still based on inherited wealth to a large degree, voluntarily gave way under the duress of the Vietnam War and the protests that it engendered. The new establishment has no intention of giving way. But even if it did, Voegeli worries about the need for a “relief establishment.” His solution would appear to be:
if you’ll permit a parochial observation, the Claremont Institute, which antedates the movement by 30 years, and was created to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life…Conservatives have to finish the sentence, to explain how shrewdly delimited government can succeed where sloppy, undisciplined government has failed…The political problem is that the Tea Party populists may not accede to a conservative agenda set by a different set of experts and professionals.
The Summer 2010 issue of National Affairs also has an essay on the TPM, by Henry Olsen. He argues that the sort of populism feared by our founders and associated with things like Nazism treats ordinary people as helpless victims, demonizes the other, and seeks to redistribute property from the villains to the victims. In contrast, he argues that the TPM sees
American people not as helpless victims, but as honest folk dispossessed of their right to achieve prosperity and happiness through self-improvement and hard work.
…the “other” in American populism tends not to be vilified as an implacable enemy without rights. Instead, he is an adversary…but still a fellow citizen who…is capable of redemption, and is secure in his rights.
American populists generally do not seek to take the enemy’s property and redistribute it to the people. Instead…the people will again be able to help themselves….the key [to success for populist politicians] is to offer clear, positive proposals that can be easily identified as efforts to help people help themselves.
While Voegeli and Olsen see the TPM as a reaction against the Progressive project, the panel at today’s event had a different, and I think more accurate, view. Jonah Goldberg called the TPM “delayed Bush backlash,” and Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana seemed to agree. Pence expressed bitterness over No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug bill, and TARP. Michael Barone and others saw TARP as a key trigger. Dick Armey, whose organization FreedomWorks is the conservative establishment group most closely affiliated with the TPM, said that no Congressman who voted for TARP can speak at a Tea Party rally without being booed. Bill Kristol perhaps said that the nomination of Sarah Palin was another triggering factor, because people took the governing class’ contempt for her as contempt for them.
During the Q&A, a young person in the audience asked about the relationship of Ron Paul to the TPM. Dick Armey said that Palin and Paul were both popular with the TPM because they are seen as authentic, rather than plastic politicians.
Michael Barone said that the New Deal would have been repudiated in 1940 had the election been focused on domestic issues. Instead, the war kept the Democrats in office.
Armey and others pointed to the popularity of books about the Founding Fathers, which became notable in the 1990’s and has persisted. Armey sees the TPM as concentrated on a reverence for the original Constitution. Barone says that people respond favorably to the Founders, the Constitution, and the idea of limited government. He says that, by contrast, the original Progressive ideals sound “tinny.” Think of the labor union movement, which today is either irrelevant (in the private sector) or a malevolent special interest (public sector unions).
What will be the long-term impact of the TPM? I think it was Goldberg who cited Richard Hofstader to the effect that a third party movement is best when it is like a bee–it stings and then it dies. The idea is to sting Progressives and me-too Republicans and then die. At the other extreme, Barone compared the TPM to the 1960’s peace movement, which produced a generation of political leaders that is still with us. Afterwards, I pointed out to Barone that the typical peace movement veteran is 60 today, while the typical TPM veteran will be 100 in forty years. He said, “I thought of that while I was talking.”
Armey pointed out that TPM folks tend to read and to think critically about what they read. This observation, which I have also noticed in my limited experience speaking to TPMers, is something that will be very hard for the Left to get its mind around. My guess is that at some point in the next year or two, the fact that the Washington crowd is not as intelligent as it thinks it is and the fact that the TPMers are more intelligent than the Washington crowd thinks they are will become evident in some dramatic way that forces changes in the mainstream media narrative.
Meanwhile, I find it fascinating to watch establishment groups in the conservative and libertarian worlds try to come to grips with the TPM. I think that the Cato and Reason folks will remain wary of the TPM, primarily because of the issues of immigration and gay rights. (Pence linked fiscal responsibility with traditional marriage as moral issues.)
Some big-government conservatives may try to sneak their views in, perhaps on the grounds of needing what Olsen calls “clear, positive proposals.” However, I think that Goldberg is right that the TPM is an expression of Bush backlash, and the TPM wants to dump compassionate conservatism, whatever the consequences.
I don’t see the TPM succeeding as a sting-and-die operation. The Progressives are too well entrenched to be moved out in an election or two. I think the best hope is that, average demographics of the TPM notwithstanding, the Barone scenario plays out. That is, among the people attracted to the TPM there will be a young cadre who are highly intelligent, creative, and ultimately influential. They will find a way around what I call the Established Church of Unlimited Government. It might not turn out to be a revival of the Constitution. But it will provide, for at least some if not all Americans, an alternative to living in a European welfare state.