Like most new ideas,* libertarianism must thrive in a hostile environment. The Tea Party, once the caretaker of the infant, has been infected by the very party that should have nurtured it to strength and health.
Originally, the Tea Party sprang from outrage that taxpayers were being forced to bail out banks, insurance companies, and auto manufacturers. For those afflicted with selective memory, this was during the Bush administration. So much for thinking the pot boils only for Obama.
Soon, after realizing that the outrage was shared by a wide swath of America, the Republican Party’s conservatives piled on the new bandwagon, bringing with them the social conservative flu. As noted by William Galston in today’s Wall Street Journal, this ain’t your libertarian’s Tea Party.
Although some tea-party supporters are libertarian, most are not. The Public Religion Research Institute found that fully 47% regard themselves as members of the Christian right, and 55% believe that America is a Christian nation today—not just in the past. On hot-button social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, tea partiers are aligned with social conservatives. Seventy-one percent of tea-party supporters regard themselves as conservatives.
In other words, the Tea Party now looks like a cranky old conservative after a makeover. How far we have slouched since this simple set of principles:
1) Lower taxes
2) Smaller government
3) Constitutionally-limited government
And how fresh that gust of fresh air coming from libertarians was. Most of them probably did not know yet they were libertarians. They just knew that something had gone seriously wrong with governance in this country and they had seen enough. Enough, that is, to start the most significant grassroots political movement in decades.
And now, here we are, Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads with one another over mostly esoteric issues with nary a hint of the Tea Party’s original elegant message: There is too much government. Somehow, Republicans have managed to screw up the only thing they’ve had going for them in years, playing right into Democrats’ hands. Democrats who are of one mind, by the way–that more government is better, period.
The antidote to Democrats is the Tea Party, but not the one we have now. It was co-opted by social conservatives who (see above) cannot get it through their thick skulls that gays are never going back in the closet and some people do not worship the Christian god. No one, repeat no one is going to listen to to the Christian Right who is not already of that mindset. It’s defining inclination is to preach, and few of us like being preached at.
Reasonable people may, however, take heed of a calm but principled libertarian movement. Libertarians have much in common with liberals when it comes to social issues. We don’t care who you sleep with or how you worship. We don’t want to snoop on you or tell you what to eat. We also want people to be fed, clothed, and have access to health care. We just don’t think government is the best way to provide all that. Now that is the basis for a fruitful conversation.
As a friend of mine remarked recently, what we need is not a third major political party, but a second one–one that can take a principled stand against Democrats instead of running in circles and barking. Big government is a corrosive idea whose end has come. We may still have a choice about how to end it, but end it will, either in a painful turn away from the entitlement state or the deadly collapse of whole affair.
The Tea Party, before its unfortunate illness, was the voice of reason in a world gone mad with love for the state. Now its placard adorns the sleeves of goofy and hateful conservatives. They will squander any chance libertarians have of being respected and dealt with–at least those associated with the Tea Party.
Where does this leave us? Same place as usual. We are a country without a genuine alternative. Republicans are without principle and incapable of embarrassment. They are politically inept and of the same ilk as the roguish whores on the other side. They have infected the Tea Party and need strong medicine. Strychnine, maybe.
*The principles of liberty are not new, but libertarianism’s emergence as a viable socio-political alternative is.