Decision Day: the Tea Party, Strategy and Principle

In the career of any holder of public office, as in the life of any man, a decision begins to form about him the moment that he decides to stand for something. It is a decision as to whom he has chosen to be, the values he has chosen to uphold, and the depth of his convictions. The beauty of this process is: the decision is entirely his. The hardship of this process is: the decision is entirely his, and there is no struggle so great as that of a man who holds consciously, unyieldingly, comprehensively, to a set of beliefs. The same can be said of a movement.
A decision began to form some eight months ago when the Tea Party took to Congress. For a movement that based itself on a no-nonsense platform that set aside social issues to focus on removing the government’s hand from our pockets and reconstituting it upon those exercises necessary and proper to it, this summer’s budgetary and debt ceiling crises will be reviewed as having played a significant role in shaping that decision. What, then, do they portend? To be sure, from the Ryan Plan to “Cut, Cap, and Balance”, no Tea Party action or legislation has been met with universal public approval or gone without significant controversy (deserved or not, as the Ryan Plan didn’t actually cut much of anything). They have been labeled as “heartless” and “mean-spirited” by some, by others a return to true virtue and American ideals. In terms of tangible results, they have originated no grand legislation that has yet passed. Their victories have been, as so many in government are, not through the origination of policy, but through its molding. Who, ten years ago, could have imagined a contingent of small-government advocates so united and so adamant as to back even statists such as Harry Reid into a corner so tight that his own proposed bill provides for no new revenues from taxes? Their push for a balanced budget amendment through this latest crisis, for years considered an unattainable dream, by the end seemed almost uncontroversial (with the final legislation providing for serious debate and voting on the issue to come). They have definitively shifted the center to the right. Whether it remains there, moves ever further, or retracts, depends largely upon their actions to come.
Politically speaking, what is crucial going forward will be the Tea Party’s recognition of the nature of the victories that it can expect for some time to come. They will not be the wholesale conquest of hearts and minds and an arrival at reason by all interested parties. Such things take time and cultural changes on a very foundational level. Rather, their successes will be much like the one we have just witnessed in the debt ceiling crisis— and do not be dismayed, as, in the context of history, it was certainly a success, if an imperfect one. If they remain true to the course and are wisely led, taking every inch given to them but knowing when they have won and not to forsake attainable progress for the pursuit of that which, in light of other political groups’ shortsightedness, may be currently impossible, then this will only be the first of many gradual victories. After all, while the American Revolution may have been fought in a few years’ time, it would not have been possible but for the Enlightenment— an intellectual movement that had, at that time, been growing for roughly a century. Let it be known: I am no Burkian, no defender of the status-quo or advocate for the slow and meticulous change that keeps tenured elites comfortable at the expense of principles, but, as Thomas Sowell so astutely put it recently, “The most basic fact of life is that we can make our choices only among the alternatives actually available. It is not idealism to ignore the limits of one’s power. Nor is it selling out one’s principles to recognize those limits at a given time and place, and get the best deal possible under those conditions.” Even Ayn Rand, as principled an individual as one could aspire to observe, voted for Richard Nixon as an act of self-defense against the possibility of John F. Kennedy’s becoming president.
That being said, while they must learn this process of gradual victory, they must retain the conviction that its slow pace should be attributable solely to the unwillingness and inability of others to come to reason, and not because of a readiness to compromise fundamental principles on their part. Some will see these two points— their acceptance of gradual, partial victories and an unwillingness to compromise their ideals— as being contradictory. This would be in error. Quite to the contrary, one point is a strategic dictum, where the other is a philosophical imperative. Just as a rational man must pursue his own best interest as considered within the context of his own life, so a legislator must bring the same farsightedness to the realization of his political goals. Thus is the nature of realistic idealism, or, the maintenance and pursuit of principles within the context of available alternatives. As Ayn Rand wrote in her profound essay “The Cult of Moral Grayness”, “The basic error… consists of forgetting that morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice— which means: forgetting the difference between ‘unable’ and ‘unwilling’.”
It must be remembered that the power of statism is the power of force— to mandate obligations to his neighbor upon the unwilling, in order to secure his neighbor‘s vote and the subservience of both. When, in such instances as this, force is introduced into the equation, no man can expect recourse to reason. When government is permitted to indebt itself without limitation and to tax its citizens to pay for its misdeeds, who can expect reason from a debate over whether that debt should equal 100% of GDP or be capped at 90%? When one consents to being looted, one cannot pick and choose afterward what is to be kept and what can be taken. Still, I am of the belief that, in time, with commitment and moral consistency, the victories need not be so piecemeal as they are today. Those in congress who assert their belief in the primacy of individual rights must, in times such as these, be ruthless and unyielding. At the negotiating table, they must, as the chant goes, give nothing and take from them everything. They must remember that they are fighting not for a reversion to the now-idealized 1980s under Reagan and Bush, but for the undoing of a century of injustice perpetrated against the individual under the reigns of collectivism. As conservatives of the past too readily sacrificed principles for the achievement of (unprincipled) results, so this new breed must not sacrifice results for the chance to profess an ideal that is, in the current political climate, unattainable. Above all, they must remain devoted and optimistic in their efforts, for reason is on the side of the advocates of small government and, so long as they remain vigilant and adhere to that reason, I remain convicted that the American people are on a steady course toward the light of truth.
All of this is not to suggest that there are not faults to be found in the philosophical foundations of the Tea Party. To the contrary, it would seem that they have yet to fully realize the meaning of many of the principles which they advocate— that is, they often recognize the “what” if not the “why” of an issue. This reticence-toward or disinterest-in explicitly verbalizing the moral reasons for their policies may, as it invariably has with past political movements, undermine their own ambitions and lead them down contradictory or self-destructive paths— a fate that may be detrimental not only to their own ranks, but also to the perceptions of small-government advocates and defenders of individualism across the board, Tea Party or not. To avoid such a disastrous fate, the Tea Party must, as we have come to refer to it in this publication, scale the political Y-axis from the level of concrete particulars to philosophical principles, for it is here that they hold their firmest footing and their adversaries quickly lose legitimacy. They must firmly and openly establish the standard of the good as being the security and well-being of the lives of individual American citizens. This process begins with the coalition’s leadership making an assertive stand, broaching the subject of entitlement programs and challenging the collectivist morality at their foundations— not haggling over what percentage of our budget should be devoted to social security, but debating whether a system is just which mandates private citizens to follow a pre-determined spending pattern across their lifespan, regardless of their own desires. Not simply working to overturn Obamacare, but condemning it as an affront to the principle that each man has a right to the products of his own labor and that government must not endeavor to remove them from him for the sake of another— that we are not born into this world indebted to our neighbor, that we are not our brother’s keeper. Toward the endorsement of any policy to the contrary, as always, the burden of proof is on their opponents.
Understanding that, to many, the various ideas which I have endorsed here will seem mutually exclusive, I will condense them into a single, summative statement for clarity‘s sake: Those individuals serving in congress who wish to further the ideals of small government, freedom, and capitalism must explicitly advocate a political philosophy of individual rights, defending all that that entails, and must pursue the realization of those ideals through a strategy which does not, in a desperate hope for the perfect bill, forsake the gradual concessions made by their adversaries. The current condition of our mixed economy was not arrived at in a day, nor by one fell swoop, but through a prolonged series of statist victories: antitrust, the New Deal, the Great Society. The ultimate victory of reason and limited government will likely be achieved along much of the same terms. Until then, the Tea Party congressmen and senators must remember that it is not violating one’s principles to play smart, strategic politics toward the long-term realization of one’s ends.

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