In the aftermath of the election, we find the Republican Party wringing its hands over what went wrong. There are two camps crawling out from underneath the rubble. One holds that conservatives weren’t “conservative” enough. They steadfastly maintain that Republicans are only Republican when they cling to the values that have always defined the party. Unfortunately, that includes resisting immigration, holding out against gay marriage, and pretending other religions don’t exist.
The other camp realizes that Republicans have been out in the weeds looking for a hopelessly lost ball and need to get back on the playing field. They think that while parting brush looking for the past, the present sneaked up and kicked Old Guard Republicans right in the posterior. This camp has the virtue of introspection. May they soon come to dominate.
When the Tea Party originated, Republican George W. Bush was in office. He had just seen fit to bail out big banks in order to “save capitalism.” A few months later, I began speaking to Tea Party gatherings in and around Central Illinois. Uniformly, the groups to which I spoke never brought up immigration, abortion, or any of the other contentious issues that did in the Republicans. They were universally passionate about three things: lower taxes, decreased spending, and constitutionally limited government.
About the time the Old Guard Republicans saw that this was catching on, they decided tea was the new drink of choice and the Tea Party has never been the same since. In the beginning, it was a refreshing breeze of libertarian thinking: government is the problem. Not all of it, but most of it. And the solution is to restrain government. Not eliminate it, but restrain it.
By the time the hard right political hacks were done with it, the Tea Party became the poster child for misbegotten ideas. Michele Bachmann and a host of other dufuses (or is it “dufi?”) grabbed the moniker and made hay with it. The libertarian Tea Party had the lifespan of a June frost. In its place arose the co-opted Tea Party–a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together out of a faux deference to limited government and a generous helping of hatefulness through government.
At the precise point when the Republicans could have learned something from the Tea Party, they did the only thing guaranteed to goof it up. They adopted it as their own. Now we see the very name conjuring up images of Todd Akin and other (insert more insulting word than “dufuses” here). So much for winning over sane people who think government may just be a bit too large.
And so the Tea Party started as an appeal to the perfectly sensible sensibilities of mainstream Americans. I think most people recognize that something has gone wrong with our government, and being too small isn’t it. I think most people also realize that “live and let live” is a pretty good rule to live by. In other words, their self-assurance does not extend to having government impose their preferences on others.
What now for the Tea Party? Maybe given a few months to let their heads clear, the Republicans will realize that those odd-looking people parading around in the summer of ’08 in powdered wigs and patriot clothing really were onto something. Maybe when enough good people turn their backs on the religious fanatics* and hate-mongers** in the Republican ranks, they will realize that their thinly-veiled hostility toward those who are different is killing them.
It is also possible that they will cling even more fervently to social conservatism with all its nastiness. If so, perhaps the original Tea Party hosts will find a new home under a different political tent. The Libertarian Party shows promise, though Gary Johnson or someone like him must lead the charge to make it more credible and better understood. It may even require a new political party altogether.
Either way, one thing is clear. America is home to an abundance of different races, different creeds, different preferences, and different origins. We each have the individual right to work out our lives as we see fit, as long as we grant that same right to others. Our country’s road to health, prosperity, and happiness will not be paved by those who fail to acknowledge–and live by–that simple human truth.
*Not all religious people, just the crazy ones.
**Not restricted to religious nuts.