It seems we’re spending a lot of time analyzing the Tea Party movement, and I have previously offered some thoughts, but recently I was struck by an essay in Policy Review, “The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals”, by Lee Harris, author of a new book, The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite. Here is an excerpt that captures the essence of his thoughts:
The lesson of history is stark and simple. People who are easy to govern lose their freedom. People who are difficult to govern retain theirs. What makes the difference is not an ideology, but an attitude. Those people who embody the “don’t tread on me!” attitude have kept their liberties simply because they are prepared to stand up against those who threaten to tread on them…………The most important thing is simply to preserve this attitude among a sufficiently large number of people to make it a genuine deterrent against the power hungry. If the Tea Party can succeed in this all-important mission, the pragmatist can forgive the movement for a host of silly ideas and absurd policy suggestions, because he knows what is really at stake. Once the “don’t tread on me!” attitude has vanished from a people, it never returns. It is lost and gone forever, along with the liberty and freedom for which, ultimately, it is the only effective defense.
Methinks this is wise counsel that should be heeded by the pragmatic leadership of the loyal opposition, while their “intellectuals” do the work in the think tanks to advance policy that adheres to first principles. It is the latter that concerns many of us and many of the Tea Party stalwarts. As painful as it is to admit, conservatism has forfeited its reputation as a reform movement that was earned in the Reagan and Gingrich years and must regain its reformist heritage, a branding that has been severely damaged by the profligacy of “compassionate conservatism”. There is some good work underway here, such as the Mount Vernon Statement issued by leading conservative thinkers recommitting themselves to the ideas of the American founding. Great, but not enough. It will be impossible to nationalize an election without a well documented commitment to sound policy that has been translated from these principles, in other words, policy that makes these principles relevant to today’s issues and that can be understood as such by the American people.
For example, Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is one young leader who has done this with the health care issue, with policy details that make sense while he boils down the choices to two incompatible alternative understandings of America–one based on the principles of progressivism and rule by “experts” and the other on a Constitution with rule by free individuals under limited government. Sound familiar? This is where the battle lines will be drawn and this is where the wedge points in policy will be fought. The tea partyers, the pragmatists, and the intellectuals all have a critical role to play in advancing this model, and they need to come together and get on with it.
One more point that has been advanced by Jeffrey Friedman in National Review. He reports on a Pew survey that reflects a majority attitude among Americans that the central Tea Party idea, that modern government is tyrannical, fails to resonate, and he concludes that this is because Americans are by nature problem solvers and that the appeal of progressive, activist government is in solving the problems of ordinary Americans, while the tea partyers elevate individual freedom over pragmatism. This is another issue that requires careful thought and policy that correlates with principle and, as Friedman suggests, it may be that the world will belong to those who can explain why it must not be entrusted to central planners. Another role for conservative intellectuals, and let’s hope this hasn’t become an oxymoron.