Tea & Me

Below, Conor beats me to that NYT piece on the tea partiers. My take is a bit different. When it comes to reforming the right, a phrase I use advisedly, Conor and I are allied — as has been clear enough for at least a year — in some important respects. In others, however, there are important divergences. The latest reflection on the demise of Culture11 (yes, these are still being written) is worth a read, but I must disavow impressions like the following:

Culture 11 writers like Conor Friedersdorf and James Poulos are are in bad odor with most who consider themselves “real” conservatives, largely because they sometimes speak well of liberals and take a decidedly less ideological approach to their writings.

I hope I’m not in bad odor with self-identified real conservatives for a number of reasons, but at the top of the list is my own self-identification as — well, let’s say a ‘mere conservative’. I suppose any confusion on this count is my own doing. During and immediately after the Culture11 years (2008-2009), my ‘project’, such as it was, involved what now strikes me as a far too academic move to peck tactically at the edges of certain debates while taking up strategically, for purposes of criticism, a position too readily mistaken for a view from nowhere. Even on its own terms, I can’t say that approach worked. But trying to match my dispositions, commitments, and convictions — to speak the language I tried to work with back then — to events on the ground in such a way as to ‘declare for’ one team or another seemed like an exercise in pundit theater. Often, in DC, if you want to make it as a pundit the first thing you must do (and sometimes the only thing) is pick, defend, and advocate for a team with the enthusiasm, if not the sophistication, of a well-paid lawyer. I hoped my unwillingness to sign up for an ism — neocon, paleo, libertarian, whatever — would be made good by the sweeping changes of ’09: the election of Obama, the defeat of the Clintons and Clintonism, the waning of the Iraq War, and, of course, the Econopocalypse. I bet that those things would make it possible again to speak intelligibly and successfully as an undifferentiated or otherwise unclassifiable conservative.

In the best post-mortem on Culture11, I was described as “far too idiosyncratic in [my] own politics” to get wrapped up in the “self-immolating Hindenburg of movement conservatism.” Since it’s movement conservatism itself that has started to change that formulation — courtesy, in no small part, of the tea partiers, I’m obliged, I think, to return the favor and step out from behind the mannered meta-critiques of yesteryear. This is a good place to start.

The nut of Conor’s post is this:

Should Tea Party activists rise in the party from the bottom up, they’ll begin from the mistaken premise that the GOP is in a mess because it elects closet liberals. As I’ve noted before, this is incorrect: though Tea Party attendees may imagine that the folks who sold them out during the Bush Administration were insufficiently conservative in their ideology, the fact of the matter is that folks like Karl Rove and Tom Delay were calling the shots and doing the most harm. I’ve heard those men called corrupt, but I’ve never heard them called RINOs.

I don’t think the premise that the GOP is in trouble because it has too many RINOS is mistaken at all. (And let’s be clear: Republican liberals are out of the closet.) The trouble arises when conservatives conclude wishfully that the only problem the GOP faces is its liberals, and that, therefore, the GOP’s only, and final, solution is the elimination of its liberals. Occasionally, successful, established movement conservatives will talk this way. It’s easy for them, because they’re competing with successful, established liberal Republicans for control of the party apparatus. Following their lead, movement conservatives who aren’t quite as establishment, but whose constituencies have long been established pillars of the Republican grassroots, sometimes do the same.

But if there’s any group that’s least in danger of falling prey to the trap Conor identifies — aside from RINOs themselves, and would-be neutral referees of intraparty politics — it’s tea partiers. It’s precisely because putatively conservative Republicans have failed so spectacularly to deliver conservative governance that the tea partiers have moved to separate their identity and their organization from those of the GOP.

Yes, tea partiers have little praise for the Olympia Snowes of the world, but tea partiers recognize above all that the legacy of the Bush years would have been no better, and the GOP of today no better equipped to break free from it in the way necessary to defeat Obama, had the Olympia Snowes of the world been run out on their respective rails. If Republican liberals are irrelevant to the root problem, more Republican liberals would bring, at worst, greater irrelevance. They are not a poison but a distraction — one might almost say a red herring. From the tea party perspective, the idea that ‘more RINOs’ are the solution to a breakdown of conservatism in the congressional and party leadership is merely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.

The problem, as my fellow erstwhile Culture11er Ericka Andersen recently tweeted, is less that Americans stopped liking “what the GOP is supposed to deliver” than that “they stopped liking what the GOP actually delivered.” Supposedly, this tension reflects a war over “the heart and soul of the Republican party,” one centered on deep disagreements over exactly what the GOP is supposed to deliver. Indeed, small-c conservative Americans, regardless of party, have resisted the Republican slide into establishmentarian corporatism since, in our time, the rise and fall of Ross Perot.

The forceful way in which the tea partiers are putting this conservative resistance at the center of our political debate today should remind us of what went wrong for Republicans during the two Bush presidencies. The Bush presidents, different in so many ways, both turned the GOP toward corporatism in a way that significantly limited their success as candidates and presidents. (Reagan had neither problem. This is the root of Reagan nostalgia.) The lesson is a simple one: first and foremost, the Republican party is supposed to deliver not economic nor cultural but political goods.

The tea partiers, in insisting that economic policy derives from and reflects political principles, and not the other way around, help make this clear. Take taxes. When taxes are too many and too high, the economy suffers. But, as this decade has brutally taught us, taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it. The evil of taxes is not primarily economic but political. When a government learns how to use taxes to coerce, control, and manage the behavior of its citizens, a country is placed on a perilous road — not to serfdom, necessarily, but to tyranny, a tyranny that lords over even the rich and famous, even when they happen to profit from its favor. The GOP is supposed to keep this kind of tyranny at bay, and when it comes near, the GOP is supposed to ward it off.

It’s in this regard that, over the past ten years, the GOP has failed. The trouble with RINOs is that, in their liberalism, they are often either blind to the threat of tyranny or they do not really see it as a problem. This is not because they ‘fail to understand the nature’ of tyranny. Tyrannical regimes can rule over dynamic, exciting societies, over huge numbers of people full of promise and purpose. They can focus resources on big challenges and execute amazing feats of efficiency and publicity. Just ask the growing number of American commentators suffering from China envy.

Moreover, liberals of any party seeking primarily to foster or facilitate cultural change typically have little desire to focus their attention, much less their careers, on preventing the government from aggrandizing itself. A government that routinely manages economic behavior through its economic policy is well able to routinely manage social and personal behavior that way. In theory, there’s no reason why lots of Republicans can’t be ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative.’ In practice, social liberals, of any party, have a vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.

In fact, tea partiers help everyone understand that ‘fiscal conservatism’ is a misleading phrase. A ‘fiscal conservative’ is for balanced budgets and well-calibrated taxes and against wasteful spending. A tyrannical government, if it has any brains, is for solvency and efficiency too. ‘Fiscal conservatism’ can license the aggrandizement and abuse of government power. It might be necessary to economic conservatism, but it isn’t sufficient. Alone, it isn’t conservatism at all, and under the right conditions, ‘fiscal conservatism’ can actually destroy its namesake.

Which brings us to Tom “no more pork to cut” DeLay and Bush’s Brain himself. That these men are not liberal Republicans does not mean they failed completely as conservatives, which they did. No amount of cultural signaling can make up for the level of federal aggrandizement DeLay and Rove supervised. DeLay and Rove leveraged conservatives’ salutary obsession with taxes into an abusive relationship: ride along on the road to tyranny, and there’s another tax cut in it for you! Those cuts were real, and sometimes even significant. But tax policy is ultimately a means to an end, and the end DeLay and Rove pursued made a mockery of the means.

Who, if not the tea partiers, is out front today with this message? I see very little danger that the tea partiers will scrap their substantive politics in favor of the fluff symbolism of witch hunt theater. Unless, that is, they are suckered by Sarah Palin — a temptress indeed. But that is a story for another time.