As both the Democrats and Republicans position themselves for the November congressional elections, the tea party movement has become an increasingly visible and discussed force in American politics. In communities across the country, citizens have organized to oppose President Obama’s big government policies. Some within the liberal intelligentsia initially dismissed the tea partiers as “astroturf,” little more than a populist facade for established, well-funded organizations such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. However, as the tea party movement continues to develop, both its supporters and opponents have come to realize that it largely lacks a central leadership, a unified direction, and a specific political program. Tea partiers strongly oppose the bank and auto bailouts, the economic stimulus bills, and Obamacare, but what exactly they support remains in question.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has emerged as a hero to many tea partiers, but her speech at the national convention for Tea Party Nation, one of the new tea party organizations, revealed the underlying tensions which threaten the movement’s cohesion. Rather than focusing on the economic issues which unite all tea party activists, Governor Palin began her speech by viciously attacking the Democratic record on national security and calling for strict sanctions against Iran.
To many in the media, Sarah Palin represents the official tea party ideology and speaks for everyone associated with the movement. In this inaccurate picture, all tea party activists strongly oppose government intervention in the marketplace, support the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as a hostile posture toward Iran, support the PATRIOT Act and other terrorism-related curbs on civil liberties, and oppose gay marriage at all costs. This Palin-centric tea party looks like little more than George W. Bush compassionate conservatives who dropped the compassion in exchange for the desire to actually cut government spending.
Contrary to the media storyline, neither the Republican Party nor conservatives like Governor Palin have a lock on the tea party movement. She admitted as much in her speech, proclaiming that the tea party movement needed no single leader and that the Republican Party would do well to heed their concerns. Last November, the tea partiers may have cost the Republicans a victory in a New York special election for a safe Republican seat by rallying around the Conservative Party’s standard bearer instead of the liberal Republican nominee.
The media also tends to ignore or downplay the role libertarians play within the tea party movement. The anti-government populism and grassroots energy of Congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian supporters in the 2008 presidential race in many ways laid the groundwork for this new movement. Libertarians and libertarian organizations, including the Libertarian Party, remain active in many tea party groups, and signs endorsing Paul’s call for a full audit of the Federal Reserve are ubiquitous at rallies. Although a minority within the movement, libertarians form a vital part of the emerging coalition which may doom the congressional Democratic majorities in the fall.
Yet, the tea party libertarians don’t seem to get much attention because they challenge the prevailing narrative which portrays tea partiers as really ticked off social conservatives who don’t want to pay taxes. Unlike the Palin wing, libertarians remain skeptical about using American military might abroad, generally oppose to American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and stand against escalating tensions with Iran. Libertarians also defend civil liberties against government infringement in the name of fighting terrorism and tend to support gay marriage or even the disestablishment of government marriage altogether.
These basic belief differences between the Palin and Paul elements within the tea party coalition threaten to weaken its political power through infighting. The Texas Republican primaries appear to be ground zero in the battle for the tea party’s future direction. Despite his role in encouraging anti-government activism, Congressman Paul himself faces three Republican challengers, all connected to the tea party movement and opposed to his non-interventionist foreign policy views.
In the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary, Sarah Palin endorsed incumbent Governor Rick Perry in his primary fight against more moderate Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson. In recent weeks, though, former county Republican chairwoman Debra Medina has become the face of the tea party libertarians. Medina has rocketed in the polls, going from four percent to twenty-four percent after her participation in two televised debates. With only Ron Paul’s endorsement and the hard work of many tea party activists, Medina has enough support to deny any candidate a majority and so force a runoff and may have even surge past Hutchinson to face Perry in that runoff election.
By moving away from the movement’s original focus on economic freedom, Governor Palin and other social conservatives risk driving libertarians out of the tea party coalition. Instead, conservatives should work with libertarians whenever possible to elect favorable candidates. Indeed, Governor Palin showed the way in this regard by endorsing Rand Paul, Congressman Paul’s son, in the Kentucky Senate Republican primary instead of the Republican establishment candidate. The tea partiers can best bring about change in Washington by clearly and consistently opposing the Democratic economic agenda and instead supporting pro-market policies. For both libertarians and conservatives, a Republican Congress united on economic issues but with diverse views on foreign policy and civil liberties would be a welcome change to the present Democratic majority.
by Andrew Marshall