The Future of the Tea Party


By Joe Campbell
January 7th, 2010

As soon as I write about all the great columns David Brooks has been producing recently, he goes ahead and writes this one.

Now, it isn’t bad – and it is certainly interesting. But in predicting the rise of the tea party conservative movement, Brooks is extrapolating too much from a short term trend. Brooks himself should be able to see this, as he writes:

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.

Which is why I would be wary of extrapolating some broad tea party movement sweeping through Congress a year hence – and even more of listing the tea party movement in the litany of defining influential groups of the decade beginning with the hippies defining the 60s, the feminists the 70s, and the Christian conservatives the 80s. (Especially given how similar the Contract with America/Ross Perot crowd was to the tea party – and how that simply fizzled in the 90s.) The tea party crowd may define the coming era – but I would be extremely wary about prognosticating that given our rapidly shifting political environment. I would even be wary of presuming they will help the Republicans win many seats back in the 2010 midterms.

But this observation does strike me as potentially prescient – and I’d like to see Brooks explore the idea more fully:

The Obama administration is premised on the conviction that pragmatic federal leaders with professional expertise should have the power to implement programs to solve the country’s problems. Many Americans do not have faith in that sort of centralized expertise or in the political class generally.

I’ve argued in the past – rather vaguely and putting the matter in starker terms – that this is a potential problem. But to the extent the approach favored by the Obama administration is “tinkering,” as I believe the current evidence seems to show, I think they avoid the worst of this policy trap. The tinkering approach manages to both be technocratic and epistemologically modest – at its best capturing the best aspects of a conservative reticence and a liberal desire to innovate. What it isn’t is especially democratic – which I still believe is problematic.

The tinkering approach also creates a political problem as it does not yet have a compelling story associated with it – as FDR’s New Deal did, as JFK’s New Frontier did, as LBJ’s Great Society, as Reagan’s focus on cutting back government to release individual initiative – to renew Morning in America did, as Clinton’s triangulation did, as the Contract With America did, as Bush’s War on Terror and Ownership Society and Compassionate Conservatism all did, as Obama’s campaign for Change We Can Believe In did, as the tea party’s hyperbolic screams of protest against Nazi-Communist policies has already, as the left’s chants of “Sellout!” have already. Without this compelling story, this mythic goal, the tinkering approach has been portrayed as centralizing, big government, 1980s-style liberalism – or the embrace of Bush-era policies and the selling of Washington to special interests. The tea party has been able to get traction largely because the Obama administration hasn’t found a compelling story to explain its tinkering approach. If the administration is able to find this story, anchoring it in some series of news events, it could entirely shift the momentum and defang the tea party just as Clinton was able to do with his triangulation in the 90s.

Side note: Brooks is able to describe the tea party’s position in a far more compelling way than I have heard any supporter of the movement (of which Brooks is not.) But I think he gives the movement too much credit:

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

If the movement evolves in this direction, it would be able to gain more traction – but at the moment all I see are howls of rage.

[Image by Rberteig licensed under Creative Commons.]