On the Tea Party Menace (and the President's Strategy to Keep His Job)
Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. He serves as executive editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science, and has been chair of the politics and literature section of the American Political Science Association. He also served on the editorial board of the new bilingual critical edition of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and serves on the editorial boards of several journals. He has written or edited fifteen books and over 200 articles and chapters in a wide variety of venues. He was the 2007 winner of the Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.\r\n\r\nLawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004 – 09. His most recent book, Modern and American Dignity, is available from ISI Books.\r\n\r\nFollow him on Twitter @peteralawler.
Our BIG THINKING friend Robert de Neufville has outlined an important component of President's Obama's case for a second term.
Sure, the economy is tanking. And so are the president's ratings, because he seems pretty clueless. (Just as, to be fair and balanced, President Bush came to seem pretty clueless on the tanking of our Iraq strategy.)
Not only that, studies show that American opinion is trending against BIG GOVERNMENT. People increasingly don't buy into Obama's PROGRESSIVE VISION that bigger and better government could possibly cure what ails us these days.
But it turns out, Robert claims, that the Republicans aren't really the shrink government party. That's beause they're dominated by THE TEA PARTY, which is, at heart, theocratic. The Tea Partiers want big, moralistic, intrusive, religious government. And most Americans, after all, don't want that! (They really don't!)
So the president's form of BIG GOVERNMENT, being less intrusive, will be seen as preferable to the Tea Party form.
Robert is surely right that the Democrats will do well to campaign against THE TEA PARTY MENACE. He admits they will do so the way Republicans or the Right used to campaign against McGovernism or against THE RED MENACE of socialism or communism.
Most Americans, studies show, don't like and are suspicious of THE TEA PARTY, partly as result of a relentless MAINSTREAM MEDIA attack on its character.
That means that many sophisticated Americans these days have roused themselve up to believe that anyone with opinions that are RELIGIOUS or CONSERVATIVE is in secret alliance with THE TEA PARTY--at least fellow-travellers!
So a member (well, probably more than one) of the faculty at my Berry College is talking about a the threat of THE TEA PARTY takeover of the college. As far as I know, no faculty member and no more than a couple dozen students or so have any affiliation with or total agreement with those partiers. But still...
I have admit that we can't dismiss the possibility that those gun-toting defenders of SECOND AMENDMENT RIGHTS might be planning a takeover by force of arms. (That's a joke, son! They're very law-abiding folks!)
My serious point is that Robert mischaracterizes the partiers to some extent. It's true that they are disproportionally religious. And they trust candidates who display their Christianity in public--like Bachmann and Perry.
But, although they think, with a kind of misguided piety, that our Founding Fathers were more Christian than they really were, those partiers aren't theocrats at all.
Here's what they think: Wherever the national government--especially bureaucrats and judges--go, religion is chased away. So they want really small government so that they can live as they please.
All libertarians are for living as they please in the absence of government regulation. But it pleases THE TEA PARTIERS, very often, to live self-sufficiently as Christians with big families. What's so bad about that?
So a big issue for many of the partiers is HOME SCHOOLING. They don't want the government getting in the way of their decisions on how to educate their very own kids. And I have to admit that even I (who didn't home school and would probably, on balance, always choose against it) am creeped out by the over-the-top hostility of our bureaucratized educational establishment to parents' right to make this kind of fundamental choice for themselves.
Not only that, the real problem with THE TEA PARTY for Republicans is its highly principled hostility to our welfare state--the tendency to think that Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional and that texes on productivity (income taxes) are immoral. Bachmann gets her "street cred" with the partiers not so much from reading Christian authors as from claiming to study the economist LUDWIG VON MISES (a brilliant and radically anti-statist thinker, the Founder of the highly accomplished "Austrian school" of economics). The real problem with THE TEA PARTY will be the perception that its goal is to roll back the New Deal, instead of prudently reforming our entitlement programs (as most Americans want).
I have no idea whether Michele actually reads or understands Ludwig's tough books. And I don't agree with him on lots of things. Still, you have to admit: He's several pay grades higher than Friedman or Krugman or Reich.
So our TEA PARTIERS are really about thinking of the economic crisis of our time as an opportunity for a kind of new birth of freedom from government dependency. They are all about libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, for living, to repeat, as THEY please. Their religious intensity points away from big government, and that means all Americans opposed to big government have no reason not to ally with them. They're part of--not opposed to--the libertarian drift of our time.
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