Libertarians and the Tea Party: Two Ships in the Night

Six weeks into the midterm election year, Senate and House races across the country are already in full swing. As the devastating, wide-reaching effects of ObamaCare continue to be realized and the executive branch scandals of 2013 remain unresolved, Democrats struggle to maintain their hold on the Senate and to gain seats in the House. Meanwhile, Republicans wage conflicts across the aisle and within their own party, both to decide whether they will seize full control of the legislature in November and to answer key questions about the changing meaning of Republican governance in 2014.

As the Tea Party enters its third national election cycle, it remains tasked with the dual mandate of cementing its reputation as a permanent fixture in American politics and continuing to correct the ideological irregularities of its adherents. Both are functions of time, dedication, and capable leadership.

The task before them is not new, however. In fact, theirs is a path well worn by the long history of political factions that have arisen throughout American history, each destined to ultimately wither into nonexistence (as with the Bourbon Democrats and the Know Nothing movement), have its message absorbed into the platform of a larger party (the Greenback Party), see its main issues become irrelevant over time (the People’s Party), or wholly overtake the party that once gave life to it (as with the Republican party’s emersion from the Whigs).

This publication has commented repeatedly in the last three years on the deftness with which the Tea Party has remained incubated in the Republican Party, growing in size and influence without engaging in the rash, self-destructive maneuver of trying to break off on its own or run its own separate candidates in general elections. In that sense, it may well be the most successfully managed faction to emerge in more than a century of American political history.

As the Tea Party continues to mature and to prove its steadfastness, one notices an increasingly frequent discussion arising as to the relationship between it and what are informally deemed the Republican Party’s “libertarian” and “Establishment” blocs*. Herein lies an intriguing tripartite relationship: the Tea Party, bold and thus far successful, rejects the Establishment bloc but, still in the process of forming its own ideology, remains wary of the party’s libertarians; the Establishment stands firm against both, hoping that its incumbency advantage will help it weather the storm and outlive both rivals; and the libertarians appreciate the residual attention that they have garnered from the Tea Party but remain hesitant to embrace it, seemingly out of a fear of its more socially conservative elements.

The libertarian hesitancy is respectable and driven in large part by a desire not to endorse anything today that they may someday wish to disown. However, their hesitancy is misplaced, and perpetuating it may well be to the detriment of both groups. Libertarians and Tea Partiers enjoy complementary advantages that, together, could hold profound implications for the future of the Republican Party.

Libertarians have a crucial ingredient that Tea Partiers need to get their message across: intellectualism. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their individual prescriptions (I agree with many libertarian policy views while often disagreeing with their fundamental philosophies and subjectivist moral justifications), libertarians are excellent at turning to the social sciences to demonstrate the validity and practicality of their advocacies. They go blow-for-blow with leftist economists, defending the economic and social virtues of capitalism—usually better than their conservative counterparts. What’s more: they extend their defenses of individual rights to social policies (gay marriage, reproductive rights, etc.)—a lesson that many Tea Partiers have yet to learn.

Conversely, Tea Partiers have been more effective at communicating their message in simple, broadly digestible terms. They have also been more successful at establishing themselves within the Republican Party, building a caucus and carving out a national image. They have accomplished more in a few short years than the Libertarian Party has since its founding roughly forty years ago. It has also been a governing force, affecting outcomes and putting pressure on party leadership to stand accountable for immoral and irresponsible policies. In 2012, four presidential primary contenders were there largely because of their support from the party’s Tea Party wing.

Put simply: libertarians can bring substance to the Tea Party; the Tea Party can bring an audience to libertarianism. As it stands now, one has sound bites and not enough substance while the other has doctrine without salability.

It is true that there are differences in views between them.  The Brookings’ Institution’s Ross Tilchin recently released a study of the current composition of the Republican Party. In it, he details some of the geographical and demographic barriers between the factions, noting that 61% of libertarians do not identify with the Tea Party and only 26% of Tea Partiers are libertarians. The dividing lines become a bit clearer when it is revealed that 78% of libertarians do not identify with the Christian Right while 52% of the Tea Party do. The implication being that Tea Partiers remain too socially conservative for libertarians’ liking.

These statistics certainly do not indicate movements primed for merger. However, I maintain that libertarians are actually missing a great opportunity by passing up engagement with or even involvement in the Tea Party. What the Tea Party has done is, in effect, to open a back door into the Republican Party. They have established themselves as a continuing presence and a center of influence. Their ideology, however, remains undefined. Therein lies the opportunity for libertarians.

If libertarians wish to take advantage of a rare opportunity for the spread and flourishing of their beliefs, they need to get involved in the struggle to shape what the Tea Party stands for.  True: in its current form, it remains too influenced by social conservative views. However, if the turbulent state of the movement suggests anything today, it is that its nature and fate remain undecided. The faction has established itself. It has acquired influence. What it will do with that influence is yet to be determined, and as with so many ideological struggles it will be the most committed group that prevails.

Libertarians have tried for decades to be heard. For a devoted and long-surviving political movement, they have generally not proven particularly skilled in making inroads—perhaps due to an admirable refusal to compromise, an inaptitude for political strategizing, or an unproductive self-righteousness that refuses to work with any party or movement that does not hold its views from the start. If it is the first of these problems that halts their progress, I again point to the new and malleable quality of the Tea Party and encourage their influence. If the second, I stress that the barrier is now lower to them than it has been in decades and suggest that they take note. And if the last is indeed the culprit, it will be unfortunate to see libertarians miss the opportunity to shape a movement that could prove a conduit for their ideas in the Republican Party.

  * To be clear, in the context of this article I use these labels– “Establishment”, “libertarian”, and, for that matter, “Tea Party”, as generalizations. Rest assured: I am not under the illusion that any of these three groups has anything close to real ideological consistency. For this discussion, however, they will serve the purpose.

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