D. Dowd Muska


The Tea Party’s Fragile Partnership

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 David Koch.”

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 done.’”

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 40 percent

• marijuana should “be illegal”: staunch conservatives 73 percent, libertarians 43 percent

• oppose homosexual marriage: staunch conservatives 85 percent, libertarians 45 percent

• 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, theocons, populists -- savor the loathsome Pennsylvania pol’s chickenhawkery, 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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