August 09, 2012
The tea party has two camps.
That’s the assessment of “Libertarian
Roots of the Tea Party,” by David Kirby and Emily Ekins. Published by the Cato Institute, the paper explores the forces
that created the revolt against spendaholism and regulatory ratcheting in the
Age of Obama.
Kirby is the vice president of FreedomWorks, the D.C.-based nonprofit
that “recruits, educates, trains and mobilizes millions of volunteer activists
to fight for less government, lower taxes, and more freedom.” Ekins is director
of polling for the Reason Foundation, a think
tank for cosmotarians.
So the two belong to a tiny group of analysts who understand that the tea party
is neither a collection of dimwitted, trailer-park, sister-marrying bigots, nor
is it “an ‘astroturf’ movement ginned up by billionaire funders Charles and
The tea party, it is widely believed, was born on February 19,
2009, when CNBC’s Rick
Santelli delivered a now-legendary
rant against the Homeowner
Affordability and Stability Plan. But Kirby and Ekins note that the commentator’s exasperation
“ignited anger that had been smoldering for at least four months since the TARP
financial bailout, and probably years before that.”
“Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party” makes a persuasive case
that “libertarians led the way” in the wave of anti-Washington agitation that
erupted in early 2009. It was young, urban, and social-media-savvy protesters
-- many were veterans of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign -- who sparked
the grassfire. Demonstrations then spread to suburbs and rural areas. But it
wasn’t long before “conservatives began to take on leadership roles in local
groups -- as organizers, fundraisers, list compilers, and evangelists of the
movement. … Conflicts began to materialize. And some libertarians began to feel
less welcome in the movement they helped create.”
One Sacramento-based activist noticed the right-wing celebrities
grafting themselves to the cause in search of ratings, book sales, and votes, and
expressed the disillusionment felt by many true believers: “[A]fter people
started standing up and saying, ‘Oh, Glenn Beck represents the tea party
movement’ -- Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin … when Sarah Palin started speaking as
the leader of the tea party movement, that was the point where I was like, ‘I’m
Unfortunately, dissention was inevitable. An exhaustive
poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, conducted in
the winter of 2011, summarized the “typology” of the American electorate. Libertarians
were identified as a distinct cohort. “Staunch conservatives” represent another
key bloc of voters. The two clans share common ground on spending, taxes,
regulations, and healthcare. In other areas, the disagreements are substantial.
Here are just a few of the issues that divide the twin pillars of the tea party
(survey statement, followed by percent in agreement):
• immigrants are “a burden on our country because they take our
jobs, housing and health care”: staunch conservatives 68 percent, libertarians
• marijuana should “be illegal”: staunch conservatives 73 percent,
libertarians 43 percent
• oppose homosexual marriage: staunch conservatives 85 percent, libertarians
• the U.S.
should “get tougher” with China
on economic issues: staunch conservatives 79 percent, libertarians 43 percent
• peace is best ensured “through military strength”: staunch
conservatives 76 percent, libertarians 48 percent
• Obama is moving “too quickly” to withdraw troops from Afghanistan:
staunch conservatives 52 percent, libertarians 17 percent
• Islam is “more likely” to encourage violence than other
religions: staunch conservatives 84 percent, libertarians 53 percent
In short, the tea-party smackdown is Ron Paul vs. Rick Santorum.
Libertarians heed the Texas
congressman’s admonitions about foreign adventurism, and share his desire for federalist
solutions to thorny social squabbles. Conservatives -- neocons,
-- savor the loathsome Pennsylvania
and endorse his desire for federally imposed morality. (As Kirby and Ekins put
it, Santorum is “the opposite of the functionally libertarian candidate.” And
he’s not interested in building bridges: “I fight very strongly against the
libertarian influence of the Republican Party. … I’ve got some real concerns
about this movement within the Republican Party and the tea party movement to
sort of refashion conservatism. I will vocally and publicly oppose it.”)
Can this political marriage be saved? That’s up to tea-party
leaders, who must focus the faithful on Obamacare, debt, corporatism, and taxes.
Immigration, homosexuality, trade, and “national defense”
cause the coalition’s fissures to widen, and defections follow.
Let’s hope the common-ground approach keeps the tea party
potent. Kirby and Ekins explain how libertarians lit the match. But in the
desperate struggle to escape economic ruin and public-sector
insolvency, more troops are needed.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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