Speaking of the World’s Most Infamous Creed Apologist
(UPDATED BELOW THE FOLD)
Joe Carter, with whom Barrett will be brawling beginning tomorrow, makes a highly unique argument with regards to the Tea Party, at least to the extent that he is making it from a conservative perspective. Joe’s thesis is that the Tea Party movement is not really a movement at all, writing:
Indeed, the main faction of the Tea Party is a subset of the religious right. A recent survey has shown that nearly half (47 percent) consider themselves to be part of the conservative Christian movement. And despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically-oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views….However, despite being dominated by religious people, the Tea Party organizations don’t focus on social conservative issues. There is, in fact, little agreement on which issues are significant. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.
So if the Tea Party is not a movement, what is it? Mostly a marketing tactic, and an attempt at rebranding. The term Tea Party is mainly a label for very conservative Republicans and conservative independents who always vote for the GOP, even when they shun the Republican label. It’s a way to set themselves apart from those they deem insufficiently conservative, like RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and ruling class elites.
Carter goes on to argue that the claims of the Republican establishment and the media crediting the Tea Party with last night’s victory as if it were a truly new group will result in the Tea Party being treated as “merely another special interest to be pacified,” rather than as the same conservatives that have always formed the core of the GOP but whose influence over actual domestic policy during the Bush years was relatively limited despite popular perception to the contrary. * The empirical claims here seem accurate enough – indeed, the notion that the Tea Party spurred new voters to the polls is belied by the fact that only 3% of yesterday’s voters were first-time voters and all but 4% voted in the 2008 election.
Obviously, however, I am vehemently opposed to Carter’s normative conclusions, which effectively argue that those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party should recognize that the Tea Party label is just a rebranding of conservatism and insist that Republicans push the full conservative agenda, rather than just focusing on spending cuts and taxes.
On the other hand, if the Tea Partiers take Carter’s advice and push for the full slate conservative agenda, then it would completely validate my initial skepticism about the groups, my respect for certain organizers notwithstanding, and prove the concerns I raised about it all the way back on April 13, 2009 completely correct. Indeed, the distinct possibility that Carter’s normative prescriptions will be followed is a major reason why I’ve remained skeptical of the movement.
On the flip side, though, that original argument of mine also hints pretty strongly as to why the Tea Party would be foolish to drop its label and insist on pushing the full conservative agenda: doing so will ultimately render it ineffective and incoherent and sunder it apart. As I’ve long pointed out, a not-insignificant reason for the drastic shrinking of the conservative coalition in 2006 and 2008 was the fact that the full conservative agenda had become ideologically incoherent and thus had to rely on fear and outright nastiness to keep its troops in line, savaging principled dissenters and driving them away in the process.
Although Carter is certainly correct that an overwhelming majority of Tea Partiers are social conservatives of some stripe and that a dominant plurality specifically identify as part of the conservative Christian movement, that does not at all lead to the conclusion that the Tea Party would have been equally successful if it had brought social conservatism more into play than it did or will continue to be successful if it does so in the future.
Ultimately, even an overwhelming majority is a far cry from “all,” and it must further be recognized that amongst those who voted Republican yesterday, about 1/3 had neutral or negative opinions of the Tea Party, and less than half claimed to “strongly support” the Tea Party. Without the more libertarian-inclined members of the Tea Party or without the groups with relatively neutral opinions of the Tea Party, the Republicans would not have won at all. It is those groups that, in 2006 and 2008, largely abandoned the Republican Party and were dismissed as unwelcome heretics by across-the-board movement conservatives.
If the Tea Party were to completely drop its veneer of being focused on government spending and instead simply become a vehicle for the advancement of movement conservatism more generally, it would cease to have any real relevance whatsoever. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that each Tea Party-approved statewide candidate whose social conservatism became a campaign issue, whether by choice or otherwise, performed miserably or, at the very least, suffered a disappointing loss: Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino, Ken Buck, and perhaps a few others.
In other words, the Tea Party was not a successful vehicle for the Republican wave (which I think would have largely happened in any event) because it reenergized disillusioned conservatives – how could it be when only about 4% of Republican voters yesterday didn’t vote in 2008? It was instead a successful vehicle for the Republican wave because its ability to be associated solely with government spending issues provided a big tent under which to bring those alienated by movement conservatism back into the fold. Indeed, looking at the exit poll data, about 15% of yesterday’s Republican voters – almost 4 times those who we will presume were just too embarassed by the GOP’s neglect of across-the-board conservatism to cast a vote – either voted for Obama or a third party candidate in 2008.
This is not to say that the Tea Party will be a coherent force if it disregards Carter’s advice. To the contrary, I think that the Tea Party will have to abandon a sizable chunk of its base if it is to do anything concrete towards actually reducing the size of government in a meaningful manner, which is why it would have been political suicide for the Tea Parties to come up with any serious concrete proposals for budget cuts during the campaign. But now they have to participate in government in some way, and no matter what form that participation will take, it will of necessity require abandoning a particular portion of the Tea Party base.
But few things would undermine the Tea Party’s successes more than dropping the (admittedly thin) veneer of being an independent group concerned entirely with the size of government in order to simply act as movement conservatives under a different banner.
UPDATE: Well, that was quick.
*It seems important to mention here that as much as all we good social liberals like to think that social conservatives dominated the Bush Administration, the biggest policy success of those conservatives that we like to cite – the Terry Schiavo affair – had exceedingly limited implications. It was an unconscionable government intervention in a private matter, to be sure, but it was not something that could be portrayed as emblematic of a sustained policy success by social conservatives. That said, the bigger long-term issue, generally ignored by liberals and social conservatives alike, was the emphasis on hiring social conservatives for civil service positions.