Monday, November 1, 2010

Why Christians Should Be Grateful for the Tea Parties

Janet Daley of the Daily Telegraph has a very interesting article on the upcoming US midterm election in which she describes the coming election wave as as not the triumph of the Republican Party as part of the normal working of the normal two-party system, but as a revolt against cultural elites of both parties. In general, she is right on and it is interesting to see how this theme is spreading.

But when she talks about the Tea Parties (she deliberately uses the plural because they do not constitute a single movement), I think what she says is important but potentially a bit misleading. Let's listen to what she says in "Midterm elections 2010: prepare for a new American revolution."

So the Republicans are, if anything, as much in revolt against the establishment within their own party as they are against the Democrats. And this is what the Tea Parties (which should always be referred to in the plural, because they are not a monolithic movement) are all about: they are not just a reaction against a Left-liberal president but a repudiation of the official Opposition as well.

Nor are they simply the embodiment of reactionary social conservatism, which has been the last redoubt of the traditional Republican Right. There were plenty of people in New York who wanted to believe that Tea Partiers were just a new incarnation of the gun-totin', gay-bashing right-to-lifers whom they found it so easy to dismiss as risible throwbacks. This is a huge political miscalculation, which quite misses the point of what makes the Congressional midterm elections this week such an interesting and historic political event. This is so much more than the predictable to-ing and fro-ing of party control midway through a presidential term. What the grassroots rebellion is really about is an attempt to pull the Republican party back to its basic philosophy of low-tax, low-spend, small government: the great Jeffersonian principle that the best government is that which governs least.

One of the more electorally far-reaching effects of this is that Republicanism could become the home once again of a plausible political and economic programme, rather than simply an outpost for those who seem to reject many of the features of modern life. The gun-toters and gay-bashers and pro-lifers may have jumped aboard the bandwagon, and Sarah Palin may be frantically attaching herself to the parade, but this is not their show: the Tea Party protests began (as their name suggests) as a campaign against high taxation and the illegitimate intrusiveness of federal powers. That is what they are still about.

Read it all here. Daley is trying to explain what is new about the Tea Parties and why it is wrong to just write them off as the same old social conservatives, who are perceived by the Ruling Class to have run out of steam, especially on homosexual "marriage" and related issues. This leads some liberals to dismiss the Tea Parties out of hand and Daley wants to emphasize their Jeffersonian small government roots. This is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough.

Like the Left, the Right of American politics has been an exercise in coalition building. This is normal in a two-party, parliamentary democracy. In the 1950s, when the modern conservative movement got going, there were three distinct types of conservatives: traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk, the anti-communists cold-warriors and the libertarians. They did not always get along, as Kirk's essay "Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries" demonstrates. But they disliked each other less than they disliked statists in the leftist coalition, which included progressives, liberals and socialists. In the 1970s the neo-conservatives were driven out of leadership of the Democratic Party and joined the conservative coalition and in the 1980s they were joined by the social conservatives. The conservative coalition now had five main components.

Daley is right to highlight the small government, Jeffersonian thrust of the Tea Parties, but this does not mean that the Tea Parties are not good news for the conservative coalition as a whole. In fact, the Republican Party needs all the component parts if it wishes to achieve a majority and there is a general compatibility between social conservatives and small government, low taxes types.

Granted, the most stress in the conservative coalition will come between the libertarians and the social conservatives. But it is also true that these fractures are not at the forefront of the debate at the moment, which is Daley's valid point. It is true that, at some point, if the Republican Party achieves power, these stresses will become a flash point of conflict and that will more likely happen on same sex "marriage" than on abortion, which can be addressed in libertarian terms by stressing the personhood of the fetus. At some point, however, libertarians will need to decide if they want individual liberty with limits determined by natural law or by the arbitrary decision of state-empowered bureaucrats. Some will join the Left and others will stay with the conservatives.

But overall, one should not think that the tremendous wave of small government, free enterprise, low-tax sentiment that is sweeping America today is not a good thing for Christians who wish to promote traditional morality in the public square. It is a great thing and Christians should be thankful that the principles of the American Founding are not dead because the American Founding constitutes the best possible environment for the possibility of Christian influence in the public square: a free church in a free state. And, hopefully, those Jeffersonian democrats will realize that Christianity is a key element in a country that hopes to avoid the statism and tyranny that they so heartily detest.

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