Perhaps one of the most pervasive subplots in American politics in 2014 thus far has been the struggle for meaning being waged within the Tea Party. This publication has written of the frays between the Tea Party and Republican leadership in recent months as well as the ideological battle to define the meaning of the still developing faction. Unfortunately, polls have continued to bear out suspicions that the Tea Party, once constituted on a strict platform of individual rights, limited government, and fiscal responsibility, has gradually drifted deeper into the tangled milieu of social policy. Cato’s Michael Tanner recently described this trend well in National Review Online. Most early interpretations of this change seem to characterize it (explicitly or by default) as individual Tea Party voters changing their priorities.
Without survey data or hard evidence to support it, I wish to propose a different interpretation that I find more likely, and that may have implications for other social and political movements: that the Tea Party is not demographically the same group that it used to be.
When the Tea Party emerged onto the American political scene in 2009, it was unprecedented in recent American political history, being more reminiscent of the sort of intra-party factions typical of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It challenged Democrats and Republicans alike on their basic premises, catching both off-guard and gaining considerable ground in the process. By the time of the 2010 mid-term elections, affiliation with the faction was a sort of fiscal proof of pedigree for a candidate, and after 2010 it became sufficiently popular that Republican candidates felt the need to build it into their campaign strategies to ensure primary victories—if not aligning themselves with the Tea Party, at least paying lip-service to it.
Therein lies the shift. As Tea Party support became crucial for Republican primary contenders, candidates who were in fact hardline social conservatives began to re-brand themselves as Tea Partiers (in name, if not in values). Over time, as the caucus has grown, a considerable number of its new adherents are not, in fact, individuals who prioritize the Tea Party’s founding values, but rather orphaned social conservatives lacking a political rallying point who have become caught up in the faction’s gravitational pull.
This illustrates an important principle: as a faction or political brand name comes to hold more political capital, candidates (and even voters) who do not share its values at the outset will join it to gain credence. The resulting effect is a trade-off: the faction’s brand name will accrue in electoral value in exchange for a loss of ideological cohesion. At that point, mission creep is likely to ensue.
Is this loss of cohesion a failure of leadership? To an extent. Tea-Party-endorsed candidates go through a meticulous vetting process before getting the nod. If a candidate clearly prioritizes social issues over the caucus’ basic tenets but still gets the group’s support, that is the Tea Party leadership’s fault. Likewise, the longer the Tea Party continues to champion its core values (individual rights, limited government, fiscal responsibility) as floating abstractions rather than as manifestations of a more deeply rooted and well articulated political philosophy, the more the caucus will continue to support candidates who will not consistently preserve those values once elected—or, worse, can’t because they don’t understand them well enough to translate them into concrete policy measures.
Considering its newly fervent focus on border control, the Tea Party and its leaders would do well to police the borders of their own caucus—being careful that an influx of social conservatives eager to capitalize on the caucus’ success doesn’t permanently hijack its message. Should they fail to do so, the result could be far more detrimental to the political and economic future of the United States than any undocumented immigrant.
A true and lasting solution is neither infeasible nor easy. A course correction requires only that caucus leaders and future leaders remain focused on the priorities that the Tea Party was founded upon, that (as I have written in these pages before) libertarians and other advocates of limited government engage the caucus and take an interest in its ideological fate, and that Tea Partiers take an interest in the philosophical foundations of the policies that they advocate by reading the works of authors like Ayn Rand, Yaron Brook, Don Watkins, and Andrew Bernstein.
In the end, only through the strong and lasting influences of culture are political systems empowered and preserved. Only through the philosophy of reason and individual rights was America made possible. And only by recognizing that philosophy, embracing it, and arguing for truly capitalist policies can the Tea Party save itself and be a deciding influence in the course of America to come.