When to Reject: an Open Letter to the Tea Party

In 2011, this site was founded with the desire to spread rational ideas, provide important philosophical perspectives on today’s issues, and to intellectually defend the primary values of capitalism. In the year prior to that, America had seen the rise of the Tea Party in the sweeping 2010 midterm elections and what appeared to be a renewed cultural focus on the encroachment of government into the private lives of the American people as well as the destructive power of government interventions in producing the 2008 recession. Though this site’s authors never explicitly branded themselves as ‘Tea Partiers’, we have consistently written in support of the movement, believing it to be a nascent step in the right direction– a repudiation of government overreach that could become something much more if it is able to dig deeper to recognize and embrace the moral principles needed to mount a full-throated defense of capitalism and individual rights. In some ways it has done this; in others it has lagged behind expectations. The purpose of this letter is to single out what I believe to be one of the greatest impediments to that progress and to highlight a recent instance that should serve as a stark warning to anyone interested in preserving the future of the Tea Party movement.

The Tea Party is in the process of being quietly infiltrated. I say this not in any grandiose, conspiracy-theory-stoking manner. The elements that are infiltrating it do not do so as part of some conscientious, sinister plot. They do it as an act of self-preservation, failing to see the harm that they pose to your faction. Their effort is not in the form of some big push or sweeping charge. It is the result of a thousand marginal decisions aimed at taking advantage of the political capital built up by the Tea Party since 2009. The infiltrator is not an opponent from the left but a predecessor on the right: the social conservative.

In March of this year, in an article entitled “Tea Party Troubles: a Question of Demographics”, I wrote of the struggle for meaning that has developed within the Tea Party as they have come to displace social conservatives’ power and influence within the Republican Party. Even a party as large as this can only divide its attention and power centers so many ways, and as the Tea Party rose, we have come to hear less and less from the party’s once vocal social crusaders. While the core ‘Establishment’ Republicans have maintained their hold on the party’s high ground, the Tea Party has risen to become their primary foil.

So where have all of the SoCons gone? Intriguingly, the answer is, ‘Nowhere.’ They are still a very present and viable part of American political culture, but, having been crowded out by the Tea Party, they opted for the time-tested tactic, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Had they joined the Tea Party in name and spirit, perhaps the shift could be viewed as a pure gain for your faction. However, this is very much not the case. From my March article:

“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.”

Mission creep is precisely what is transpiring today. Since the inception of the Tea Party, the left has tried desperately to paint the Tea Party as everything from violent killers to racists to anarchists. Despite the express statement of Tea Party values as “Free markets, limited government, and fiscal responsibility”, they have worked tirelessly to allege some secret, unspoken motive on the part of its candidates and their supporters. To their credit, many of the original Tea Party politicians elected in 2010 have answered them with nothing but the pristine integrity of their work at the state and federal levels. Unfortunately, however, those Tea Party organizations that give their endorsements to candidates have gradually begun to accept candidates who have drifted from those three core Tea Party values, instead basing their campaigns on classic SoCon issues such as gay marriage, abortion rights, ‘family values’, and the like.

The Tea Party values as chosen and expressed in 2009, however, were not selected at random. They were secular, broad-reaching principles that Republicans and many independents of any religious and cultural background could embrace. They brought Americans together over rational ideas about freedom, individual rights, and the economic issues that threaten our country’s future. Their appeal was deep and wide and the Tea Party quickly became the most successful faction in American politics since the Bourbon Democrats of the late 19th century. By diverging from these principles and allowing the takeover of the Tea Party by social conservatives, you risk diverting the Tea Party’s path, sacrificing its credibility, and potentially losing not only the progress to come but even what has been accomplished thus far.

This struggle for the Tea Party’s identity is ultimately about candidate choice. A faction is only as good as the men and women it puts on the ballot. By allowing for the endorsement of candidates like Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin in 2012, Republicans took a devastating blow that fed right into Democrats’ portrayals of them as having culturally backwards beliefs. By selecting Paul Broun (best known for his characterization of embryology, the big bang theory, and evolution as “lies straight from the pit of Hell”) as their nominee in the US Senate race in Georgia this year, they overlooked a more viable and less gaffe-prone candidate in Karen Handel. And Dave Brat (though this publication remains hopeful about his candidacy) is just one of many Republican and Tea Party candidates today claiming that religion is the basis for their belief in freedom– an assertion that, by implication, patently excludes anyone who is not religious from believing in the Tea Party’s principles.

Sadly, this is not the limit of this pattern of exclusion. Despite the continued influence of right wing gay advocacy groups such as GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans, too many Republican and Tea Party candidates have continued to oppose gay marriage, apparently interpreting their own limited government ideology as applying more to economic and privacy issues without extending it to social matters. Though deserving of opposition, this much could be expected. It would be naive to think that, despite the Tea Party having succeeded in many ways, it would so quickly overcome the longstanding influences of social conservatism on prominent issues such as this.

The Tea Party– the true Tea Party, defined by its three original priorities– is, as a secular movement, a countervailing force to this trend. It seeks to shed the Republican Party of its internal debates over social issues in order to focus on serious, impending economic crises that will only get worse by being ignored. If the Tea Party is to succeed in staving off those crises and to have a lasting effect on the country’s future, its leaders will have to work to preserve its message. Like it or not, that will require condemning and ostracizing candidates who try to pirate its name to go on their own crusades or who express backwards, abhorrent views while carrying their endorsement. That is precisely what is needed now in the case of an Oklahoma Tea Party candidate for the state House of Representatives who has expressed support for the stoning of homosexuals.

House candidate Scott Esk, in the course of a social media exchange that has since been made public and covered in the press, wrote that the stoning to death of homosexuals “goes against some parts of libertarianism… and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss.” Responding to further inquiries, Esk went on to say that he was not interested in authoring legislation to put homosexuals to death but that he “wouldn’t have a problem with it.” Showing neither remorse for his statements nor, seemingly, any political sensibility as to how his message would be received by the public, he later explained,

“That was done in the Old Testament under a law that came directly from God and in that time there it was totally just. It came directly from God. I have no plans to reinstitute that in Oklahoma law. I do have some very huge moral misgivings about those kinds of sins…I know what was done in the Old Testament and what was done back then was what’s just. … And I do stand for Biblical morality.”

Mr. Esk’s comments are, needless to say, so abhorrent and so vile that it would be an injustice to much of social conservatism to ever count him in their number, and his characterization of himself as a libertarian is purely laughable. The only term that would seem to do them justice is “social primitivism.” Mr. Esk’s comments are no more acceptable than the Taliban advocating the stoning of women in the streets for walking out of their house without the proper coverings.

While most Americans will readily agree that Esk’s comments are disgustingly reprehensible, for this writer or any other to condemn it in print is necessary but insufficient. The condemnation and rejection should come first and foremost from the Oklahoma Tea Party, the Oklahoma Republican Party, and the Republican Party more broadly. I and those who have long supported the Tea Party know that ideas such as this are contrary to its basic values of individual rights and constitutionally limited government. We remain cognizant that these beliefs are not only contrary to those of the Tea Party but, it can safely be said, contrary to any significant contingent in American politics. Mr. Esk’s comments represent the worst ideas from the darkest corners of the world. They have no place in American culture, and if the Tea Party and Republicans fail to condemn them and reject him as a candidate for any office, no matter the size of his district or the measure of his influence, it is to themselves that they do the ultimate disservice.

Esk is only an extreme example, though. While appreciating the oft-invoked ‘big tent’ idea of Ronald Reagan, there is a point at which the tent has simply grown too big, allowed in too many fundamentally contradictory ideas, and degraded all ideological cohesion in the Republican Party. The ideal is a party that allows for debate and discussion but does not fail to discriminate between rational and irrational ideas. Should they fail in this, no matter how superior their tax plan or how vehement their opposition to ObamaCare, they will become something far worse than the leftists they oppose.

As a parting note, I will reiterate that the continued success of the Tea Party depends upon separating it from the social conservative ideas that it is gradually adopting. Limited government means limited in all respects, not picking and choosing which rights to respect and which to trample. If the Tea Party still holds to its three founding principles, it will return its focus to them and start selecting candidates who respect the limitations of government in social as well as economic policy, who can engage in a more fruitful discussion of scientific ideas than to accuse opponents of promulgating “lies from the pit of hell”, and who appreciate that promising to lower someone’s taxes is a paltry counterweight to saying that you wouldn’t oppose their being stoned to death. If those are no longer its priorities and it has now been so hijacked by social crusaders that biblical debates have trumped concerns for our country’s future, then perhaps this writing is too late for the Tea Party movement and it is time that those who value capitalism and individual rights move on to a new approach. I hope that this is not the case; it would be a tragedy to see a faction of such potential be traded away for so little.


Slade Mendenhall

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