The Tea Party Era

The Todd Akin case in Missouri—the Republican Senate candidate who declared that women can’t get pregnant from a “legitimate rape”—is a bit of a sideshow and a distraction, since almost no one in the party is backing him. In fact, for all the blustering outrage against Akin from the left, the most accurate and devastating analysis of his statement is from a blogger on the right. Gabe Malor at Ace of Spades writes:

Akin’s convenient misconception about pregnancy gave him an easy out when it comes to abortion. He gets to take the tough line on abortion—make it illegal in all cases—but then sooth his guilty conscience by believing some horse— about women having ways to nonetheless dispose of an unwanted pregnancy. It’s moral cowardice, but I bet you anything Akin thinks he’s a martyr.

Akin has found few people to stand up for him. No one wants to die on the hill of Akin’s radical anti-abortion stance, not even the radical anti-abortion types.

That is what is significant about this sideshow, and it shows us the way the Republican Party has changed in the Tea Party era. In that regard, rather than being a sign of weakness, this little conflict is the sign of an ideological strength that can keep the Tea Party momentum going for another four years or more.

Many people, particularly the left and the mainstream media—but I repeat myself—continue to misunderstand the impact of the Tea Party movement because they see it as one radical faction taking over the entire Republican Party. But it is not just a matter of one faction winning out over the others. Tea Party supporters and sympathizers represent all factions of the Republican coalition, and it is the uniting of the coalition that is the movement’s real significance.

To understand this, you have to understand how the main political parties function as ideological coalitions.

The American political system was designed to combat the evil of “faction,” that is, of one group seizing the power of government to promote its own narrow interests at everyone else’s expense. So the Founders created a system that prevents the emergence of the kind of factional splinter parties that you see in European parliamentary systems, where Greens or neo-fascists (most recently, Greece’s quasi-Nazi Golden Dawn) get 7% of the vote and end up being king-makers because every else needs them as swing votes in the parliament. By contrast, in the American system, if you command only 7% of the vote, you will be shut out of power. If you don’t believe, ask the Libertarians or the Greens.

So everyone is herded into two main political parties, who are divided along the broadest ideological divisions of the day. But that means that each party is itself an ideological coalition in which various factions are required to work with one another, while also competing against one another. The competition is over whose issues will take priority in the party’s agenda.

Each coalition is united by a broad ideological affinity, but there are a lot of differences in emphasis. The Democratic Party, for example, is united (as far as I can tell these days) by antipathy toward capitalism. But there is a lot of difference between the old faction representing private-sector industrial union workers, versus the newer environmentalist faction. The environmentalist faction is currently ascendant, as you can see by the Obama administration’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline. That fits the environmentalists’ anti-industrial agenda, but it keeps thousands of private-sector union workers out of a job. The unions want industrial socialism, while the environmentalists want anti-industrial socialism.

The right has its own factional difference. There are the moderate “fiscal conservatives,” whose goal is not so much to rein in the size of government, but to demand that it be run soberly and efficiently. There are still a few “compassionate conservatives” (though they are very much out of favor) who want a more effective welfare state. There are the foreign-policy hawks, whose main concern is the buildup of American military strength and the vigorous use of American power overseas. But the main conflict is between the religious conservatives, whose main concern is the support and protection of traditional religious morality, and the pro-free-marketers, whose main concern is to reduce the size of government and its interference with the economy. As secular pro-free-marketers, Objectivists knows this factional conflict only too well, because it is what tends to drive us away from the Republican Party. We fear that we will vote to stop the encroachment of big government in the economy, only to have our vote used as a mandate for the encroachment of government into the realm of morality and ideas.

I am more sanguine about that conflict, because I recognize that it is the price we pay for having parties based on broad ideological coalitions. James Madison would have wanted it this way, and who am I to contradict James Madison?

But not everybody is willing to take that attitude, and some are attracted to a third-party candidate, like Libertarian Gary Johnson. This is doomed and foolish; it is the waste of a vote, or worse, it counts as a de facto vote for Barack Obama. But Johnson’s candidacy does serve one useful function. Jack Wakeland speculated to me that Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate could be seen as an attempt to head off the threat from Gary Johnson, who was getting as much as three to five percent of the vote in some polls, enough to be the “spoiler” who would tip a close race to Obama. I don’t know whether that was in Romney’s mind, I’m not sure how many of Gary Johnson’s supporters will be mollified by the choice of Ryan. But this does illustrate how a third party, while its own candidates are doomed, can influence the major parties. Each party has to live in fear that in any given election year, as much as 20% of its base could be peeled off into a splinter party like the Libertarians or the Greens. Or, as in 1992, a huge portion of the vote could be pulled away from the major parties by a maverick third-party populist like Ross Perot.

The mere threat of this competition compels each of the parties to keep close track of its internal coalition. Each faction has to be given enough to keep it happy, but not so much as to alienate other parts of the coalition.

The best result, for a major political party, is if it can find one personality or mood or issue that unites the whole coalition. It needs something to get all the different factions to work happily together and not feel as if one faction’s gain is another faction’s loss. It is even better if this is an issue that can also appeal to independent voters and potentially peel off a disaffected section of the other party’s supporters.

This is what Ronald Reagan did. In personality, ideas, and agenda, he could appeal to Evangelical Christians, to anti-Communists, and to “supply-side” pro-free-marketers, while also attracting independent voters and conservative Democrats—the “Reagan Democrats”—many of whom permanently switched to the Republican coalition.

This is the context for understanding what the Tea Party movement really is. It is not a small, radical faction taking over the Republican Party. Rather, it is a reordering of the Republican coalition. The key to the Tea Party’s influence is that it has provided precisely the integrating principle and goal that the Republican Party needed. The Tea Party’s goal starts with the repeal of Obamacare but is more broadly to rein in the size of government. That provides the big issue, to which everything else is subordinated. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels got a lot of heat two years ago for proposing a “truce” on the social issues, but he was only describing what was already happening on the ground.

Religious conservatives can get on board with this new consensus, for now, largely because they are not entirely a separate faction—many of them are also free-marketers—and also because they are incensed by Obamacare’s infringements on religious liberty in requiring Catholic hospitals to provide abortion and birth control. Fiscal conservatives can look at the fact that a Democrat-controlled Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years. For the hawks, Paul Ryan makes a convincing pitch: America cannot project strength overseas without economic strength at home. And pro-free-marketers are offered the hope of reversing the inexorable growth of government and actually seeing some aspect of the welfare state rolled back.

This is a real change from four years ago. As I wrote at the time, the previous cycle of Republican primaries indicated a fracturing of the ideological coalition. Mike Huckabee was the candidate of the religious right, but he was hostile to the free-marketers. Rudy Giuliani was the (improbable) candidate for pro-free-marketers, but he was not acceptable to the religious right. John McCain was the candidate for the hawks, but only for the hawks. Mitt Romney was the perfect candidate for moderates and fiscal conservatives, but he was never able to earn enough credibility with any of the other groups to put the party’s factions back together. This year, he did it, largely by embracing the Tea Party’s re-ordering of the coalition.

That gives us the context for the Akin case. Akin was rejected fiercely and immediately by Republicans, partly because his comments truly were offensive and dishonest, but also because by staying in the race, he endangers the Senate majority Republicans will need to repeal Obamacare and to rein in the growth of government. He is trying to overturn the order of priorities, placing his religious agenda and anti-abortion crusade above the party’s economic agenda. As one observer of Missouri politics explains:

Since he first got into politics, Akin has been a crusader for social conservative causes. Whether it was in support of home schooling or against abortion and gambling, Akin has not given an inch. And so the folks he stood up for are sticking with him, and for that matter, so is Mike Huckabee, whose support was critical in the primary.

Note who Akin’s lone backer is. Huckabee gave Akin the endorsement that put him over the top in a three-way primary, and Huckabee is his only prominent defender now. But Mike Huckabee is the one who drove a wedge between religious conservatives and free-marketers four year ago. He has always placed the religious agenda above the small-government agenda and has never been on board with the re-ordering of the Republican coalition.

All of this indicates why it’s important to get Akin out, but also why it won’t be the end of the world if we don’t. The coalition has already been re-ordered and decided its priorities, and that consensus is too big for someone like Akin, or even Huckabee, to overturn.

This restructuring of the right will carry us well beyond the election. If the larger goal of the Tea Party movement is to rein in government, there is no way to do that without reining in the middle-class entitlements. This is the inevitable logic that has led the Tea Party to embrace entitlement reform. So offering the vice-presidency to the most prominent champion of entitlement reform, Paul Ryan, was Mitt Romney’s way of letting Republicans know that he, too, is serious about reducing the size of government, and it gave the Republican Party a very full and ambitious agenda.

If repealing Obamacare were the Republican coalition’s only uniting goal, there would be nothing to sustain it beyond January of 2013, when that goal will either be won or lost. But entitlement reform is a goal so big that it would leave Republicans with work to do throughout a first Romney term. It provides an issue not just for this election, but quite probably for the 2014 mid-term congressional elections as well. And if all goes well, it gives Republicans something to protect in the 2016 election.

That is the basis for a long-term governing coalition, and it will define the Tea Party Era in American politics.


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2 Responses to The Tea Party Era

  1. Stephen Bailey August 29, 2012 at 10:15 PM #

    Your recounting of history is flawed. The Constitution does not permit the government to promote a private association of individuals (a political party). It does not empower the government to pay for and define the process by which that private organization determines which candidates it endorses. Government provides a protected franchise for the Democrat and Republican party. That franchise prevents a free market in political ideas and organizations. It is partially responsible for our 2-party system. Although it is arguable that at any given point in time, there will naturally only be 2 major parties, this system guarantees that it will always be the Democrats and the Republicans.

    As to who are you to contradict Madison? Well, if Madison was perfect, I don’t think we would be in the condition we are now. Objectivists are quick to state that the Constitution is flawed. The Constitution is Madison’s work. The flaw, however, is not the lack of an amendment guaranteeing separation of state and economy. The flaw is in Madison’s system of checks and balances. One day soon, you’ll hear more on this. In the meanwhile, don’t let proper respect for Madison’s accomplishments blind you from the fact that they are flawed.

  2. Robert Tracinski August 30, 2012 at 9:01 AM #

    Stephen —

    “Who am I to contradict Madison?” was a figure of speech. Obviously, I’m not just deferring to Madison, I agree with him. I’m certainly open to ideas for reforming Madison’s checks and balances. We have 215 more years of experience with representative government than the framers had. That said, I don’t think any part of Madison’s system is responsible for the current state of the country. As an engineer, you should appreciate the fact that you can make a system foolproof, but you can’t make it damn fool proof.

    Yes, I agree that there should be no government support for the major parties, and the current system of federal funding and federal controls on campaign finance is an abomination. That said, I don’t think this is responsible for the two parties enduring. They endure because whenever a new ideological faction emerges and begins to gain a following, they have a huge incentive to absorb that faction into their ideological coalition. That’s what the Democrats did with the New Left and environmentalists, rather than allowing a Green Party to emerge. And it is what the Republican Party is starting to do with the secular pro-free-marketers. I expect that it will siphon away enough voters to keep the Libertarian Party small. By the same token, the third party threat keeps the major parties from becoming totally insular and resistant to any ideological change (which really tends to happen in European systems).

    My larger point is that this is a good thing. The bad news: it slows down political change in our direction. The good news: it slows down political change in any other direction.