Should the tea party movement be seen as a phenomenon as large and consequential as another Great Awakening?
Glenn Reynolds thinks so:
I attended this past weekend’s National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, and I came away feeling that I had seen something important. The Tea Party movement is part of something bigger: America’s Third Great Awakening.
America’s prior Great Awakenings, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, were religious in nature. Unimpressed with self-serving, ossified, and often corrupt religious institutions, Americans responded with a bottom-up reassertion of faith, and independence.
This time, it’s different. It’s not America’s churches and seminaries that are in trouble: It’s America’s politicians and parties. They’ve grown corrupt, venal, and out-of-touch with the values, and the people, that they’re supposed to represent. So the people, once again, are reasserting themselves.
Mr. Reynolds is incorrect. The Great Awakenings were very much about politics – so much so that the First Great Awakening is seen as the first stirrings of what historian Page Smith refers to as an “American consciousness.” For the first time in colonial America, a clear distinction was widely sensed between the highly stratified society in England and America’s more egalitarian, less class oriented social structure. It had a profound impact on most of the Founders who saw “moral behavior” as the true value in evaluating an individual’s worth, not his class.
The importance of this political awakening cannot be underestimated. Before we could sever our ties to Mother England, the colonists had to make the leap of logic that we were a separate people deserving of our own country. The Great Awakening was not only about renewal and reform of religion and its institutions, but also the notion that the unmistakable hand of God was at work in forging a new people, a new “race,” unsullied by the infection of aristocracy and class-based social conventions.
Admittedly, Mr. Reynolds used the term “Great Awakening”more as a metaphor than a straight comparative concept to describe the tea party movement’s importance in America.
But even as a metaphor, it doesn’t hold water. The tea party movement may be more popular than the Republican party with voters (more than both parties by independents) according to this Rasmussen poll but it is hard to see how this nebulous, self-described “bottom up” political movement can translate those good feelings into the kind of massive political power that it would take to upset the establishment in either party.
This is especially true since, despite protestations to the contrary, at least some of the tea party organizational structure is being absorbed into the Republican party – as it was always intended by establishment politicians who fed the nascent movement over the last year with cash and organizational resources. The tea party embrace of Scott Brown’s candidacy in Massachusetts revealed to what lengths some in the movement had been co-opted.
Brown’s “fiscal conservatism” runs a mile wide and an inch deep, as he will shortly prove as he takes his seat in the senate. As an alternative to the clueless Coakley, he was fine. But to imbue the senator with qualities that he has never demonstrated in his political career was either the product of wishful thinking or deliberate self-delusion. Brown is plenty conservative enough – for Massachusetts. But it is at least possible that if the Democrats re-work health care reform, he might vote in favor of it. And if the Democrats jigger cap and trade, he could vote for that too. He may even be persuaded to vote for a modified card check bill.
Brown, of course, played to the sunny side of conservatives during the course of his campaign, giving tea partiers what they wanted to hear while downplaying some of his more problematic positions on the issues. That’s politics, children. This is a politician who no more wants to “shrink” the overall size of government than any other inside the beltway, establishment legislator. A rebel, he is not. An independent conservative, he is. And what he means by “independent” is that he rejects conservative litmus tests that would pigeonhole him as the kind of revanchist politician favored by many in the tea party movement.
If Brown has been elevated to hero status despite his true colors being decidedly less conservative/libertarian than some of his supporters give him credit, what about the impact the tea party movement might have on Republican politics?
And the biggest action item that she presented the crowd with wasn’t to support Sarah Palin, as most politicians would have asked, but to challenge incumbents in primary races. Primary battles aren’t “civil war,” she said. They’re the kind of competition that produces strength in the end.
This seemed to resonate with what I heard from conference attendees. Over and over again, I heard from Tea Party Activists that they were planning to take over their local Republican (and, sometimes Democratic) party apparatus starting at the precinct level and shake things up.
The sense was that party politics have been run for the benefit of the party insiders and hangers-on, not for the benefit of constituents and ideals. And most of the conference, in fact, was addressed to doing something about that, not to worship of Sarah Palin, with sessions on organizing, media skills, and the like.
First of all, I doubt whether “most politicians” would have addressed the convention asking if they could be their leader – at least none with any brains. Most tea partiers have made it clear time and time again that they wish no “leader,” but rather want to remain a nebulously organized entity with ill defined goals. Most politicians would know that and, like Palin, steer clear of overtly trying to hijack the movement for their own ends.
And primary battles aren’t “civil wars” unless that is the perception advanced by the media. ‘Nuff said there. I love the civil war going on in Florida right now with a real up and coming conservative Marco Rubio taking it to the too comfortable Bush/Republican establishment. Sometimes, civil wars are good in that they clear away the deadwood and infuse new ideas, new personalities into a party.
But Florida is an open seat race and hence, a perfect battleground for this sort of thing. Not so in some other races where a GOP incumbent would be challenged by a tea party conservative. Certainly there are allowances to be made when a conservative goes against a moderate in primaries, although just as an example, I don’t think that J.D. Hayworth is the best choice to face off against John McCain.
My point is that it is lunacy to support every insurgent against every perceived RINO across the board. Like Scott Brown, some of those moderates are the best you’re going to get from the GOP in that state. Unless you think like Jim DeMint – that it would be better to “have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs…” then you have reconciled yourself not only to minority status, but also the passage of Obama’s far left agenda. The fact that Scott Brown does indeed have a set of beliefs – except they are at odds with DeMint’s narrow, parochial view of conservatism – won’t stop a lot of tea partiers from pushing for candidates who are simply too far to the right to win a statewide contest.
Yeah – but you’ll sure show them moderate RINO’s somfin, huh?
How prevalent is this attitude among the vast tea party universe? Hopefully, there are practical heads who will recognize that picking and choosing one’s fights is better than trying to nuke the party establishment because they fail some rigid, ideological benchmarks artificially imposed from outside a district or state. Questions like “How limited should government be?” will be answered differently by different conservatives across the country. Penalizing those who fail to live up to some conservatives’ ideas of a 19th century American template for “limited government” will only bring failure to the movement’s efforts.
This “Awakening” that Mr. Reynolds writes about may come about eventually. If it does, it will be the result of hard, slogging work performed by activists who eschew any kind of leadership model and rely on enthusiasm and fervent belief in their cause. It’s been done before. Look at the Democrats prior to 1968 and then view the party after McGovern’s debacle in 1972. The rioters in 1968 ended up sitting on the convention floor in 1972. And they didn’t get there because they were invited by the old-line, southern dominated Democratic party establishment.
We need more good conservatives in both parties. But is the tea party movement the right vehicle to realize that goal?