Tea Parties and their participants have been an ongoing mystery to the media, including some commentators that we sometimes think are relatively unbiased. When it comes to the participants, even though they’re acknowledged to be mostly independents and Republicans, the pundits have strange ideas about what motivates them, where they came from, and what they mean for the future of the Republican Party. One reason is that the media pundits are all too ready to accept the Democrat spin on any issue. Another reason may be that they and we have the wrong mental picture of the electorate.
When people called “independents” are imagined, where are they placed in the political spectrum? Usually, they’re thought of as being between the Democrat Liberals on the left and the Republican Conservatives on the right. They are the moderates, occupying the middle ground, neither liberal nor conservative, neither Democrat nor Republican. They are pictured as torn between both camps, willing to go with the one that appeals to them on some particular issue, but not very strongly interested in either philosophy of government. That’s why Republicans are often encouraged to create a “Big Tent” that will attract these uncommitted voters on their left flank. This picture is probably accurate in some cases.
But this vision of independents becomes very confusing when applied to the Tea Partiers, and as a result, some of the pundits, listening to Democrat spin, label them “haters” and racists and fringe characters of all sorts–gun nuts, rubes, angry white men; fearful, uneducated and uninformed boobs, you name it. But it’s only confusing because that stereotype isn’t an appropriate description.
They are obviously more than slightly energized by a philosophy of government, the one that says the federal government is too big, too intrusive, too expansive, too expensive, and out of control. But this implies that, rather than being the aforementioned boobs, they’re as well-educated and better informed than the average man on the street. They certainly know enough about the issues to ask questions about them, and they don’t like the answers they get back.
They aren’t just anti-Obama, and there’s really nothing to indicate that either hate or race is a motivating factor behind the movement. They aren’t even necessarily anti-Democrat–many of them are probably disaffected Democrats. And it’s not helpful to describe them as “haters” who are anti-everything unless you also identify the object of the projected “hate.” That object is not the President–it’s the huge government, and the increasingly intrusive government, and the exponential growth of government that he’s advocating. You could as well say that they’re “lovers”–they love smaller, less intrusive and less expensive government that is controlled by the Constitution.
They are fearful, but not because of ignorance, and they’re not afraid of a Black President, as is always implied. They’re afraid that their modern-day Captain Edward Smith is in the process of steering that Titanic government into a field of icebergs from which his successor won’t be able to escape. Those are their motivations. To dismiss them as merely “angry and afraid” (media code for “irrational, ignorant racists”) is to disparage them as irrelevant, which they obviously are not. Yet the left has tried to do that, perhaps because they’ve given up on winning any of these voters to their side.
If we accept this alternative view of Tea Party supporters, they aren’t hard to explain at all. It’s only because the media pundits want to believe they’re some new expression of extremism that they haven’t understood them yet, and why they don’t recognize where they’ve come from. I would describe them as a group of voters who would be Republicans if the Republican Party could convince them it stood for the things they want–a government that’s under control, that follows the Constitution, that isn’t trying to do everything for everybody while taking their money in taxes to do it. (In fact, that’s basically what the Republican Party says it stands for. The Tea Partiers would just like to see Republicans acting on those principles, not just more often but all the time.) Picture them not on the middle ground between the Democrat left and the Republican right, but as an overlay stretching philosophically from somewhere left of the political midpoint all the way to the right, soaring above the Republican party. They haven’t come from anywhere; they’ve been there all along. They are conservatives and conservative-leaning independents, Libertarians, Republicans, and even Reagan Democrats that the Republican Party has been ignoring for years.
If the Republicans want to expand the size of their tent, they don’t need to put on faddish Liberal pretenses to entice the odd passerby in through the side entrance. They need to blow the roof off the tent, replace it with a giant magnet of awareness, understanding, and responsible conservatism, and let those millions of independents, Libertarians, and disaffected Democrats and Republicans come pouring down from the sky above. It will happen if Republican leadership responds to their pleas, not for Compassionate Conservatism, but for effective, Principled Conservatism, conservatism with a backbone.
This is not news to Democrat strategists. It’s precisely why they’re afraid of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and even Glenn Beck (not a Republican) and every Tea Party speaker and supporter who firmly believes in and convincingly advocates conservative principles. Those philosophical trailblazers already have the attention of the American people, including independents. Democrats are afraid that Republican Party leadership just might start following that trail as well. They had a glimpse into the future last Thursday, as Republican after Republican gave conservative, principled reasons for their opposition to ObamaCare. It’s a future Democrats don’t want to contemplate.