Since it’s our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.
As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party’s loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.
It’s not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It’s also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws — Sarah Palin’s glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck’s rabid rage, Christine O’Donnell’s hilarious weirdness — represent the flaws of the movement at large.
But, as always in a principled argument, we’ll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I’m a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I’ve spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.
I’ve identified three idealistic principles that seem to be prominent in Tea Party ideology: Libertarianism, Constitutional Originalism and Militarism. Below is a brief summary of how I think each of these core ideals holds up to abstracted philosophical examination. Not surprisingly, my initial findings are mixed: I think the Tea Party is on strong philosophical ground with the first, weaker ground with the next, and extremely weak ground with the last. Here goes:
How odd, and even delightful, that modern-day conservatives are railing against the Establishment! Like the flower-power hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, or the anarchists and punks of the 1980s and 1990s, Tea Party conservatives envision a world without leaders, without heirarchy, and certainly without an all-powerful federal government collecting taxes and enforcing laws from Washington D. C.
The Tea Party does a good job of practicing its preachery here: there is no central organization behind the movement. It has no leadership, no membership, collects no dues — like Ken Kesey’s famous bus, you’re either in the Tea Party or you’re not. Philosophically, the belief in the ultimate goodness of the free individual that libertarianism implies aligns the Tea Party with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and there’s plenty worse company to be in than Rousseau and Locke.
The problem with extreme libertarianism, though, tends to arise in practice rather than in theory. Rousseau’s declared trust in the “noble savage” helped inspire the French to kill their King, but they quickly found themselves kneeling to an Emperor named Napoleon. Extreme libertarianism has an absolutely terrible track record in history; I don’t think it’s possible to name a single actual success model for it. Even the economic libertarianism (“get the government off our backs”) of Ronald Reagan’s presidency devolved by the end of his term into gigantic budget deficits and financial scandals (enabled by deregulation). These historical failures present a problem current anti-government conservatives ought to be asked to seriously address, and I’d love to see how they would.
It’s also hard to understand how libertarian conservatives can contradict their own beliefs by opposing gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, the continued legalization of abortion. The philosophy of libertarianism itself has an excellent reputation; what’s questionable here is whether or not Tea Party conservatives truly embrace it, and whether or not they understand and have learned from past experiments in smaller government or leaderless government that have tragically failed.
2. Constitutional Originalism
I’ve been amused but puzzled by the obsession of many current conservatives with our founding fathers, particularly George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Glenn Beck openly hero-worships these historical figures on his television show, and he and many others make it a point to stress the alleged Christian sensibilities and quasi-conservative roots of the founding leaders.
On a governmental level, this growing worship or fetishization of the founding fathers coincides with constitutional originalism — the belief that the U. S. Constitution, a document from 1789, contains the seed of American greatness, and is the basis of our enduring success.
In the real world, Constitutional originalism tends to get yoked to particular hot-button issues, such as slavery, taxation, abortion, gun control, education and health care. That’s the problem with Constitutional originalism — it’s too often used opportunistically to block important changes. Still, politics aside, the idea that our government is grounded in a single document — not in a set of practices, not in a group of elected leaders, but in a text — is startling enough to be worth considering on its own. Many consider the central place of the Constitution in U. S. history to be beyond dispute, but in fact it’s fair to ask: why should we believe that there is perfect wisdom in these words, created by fallible humans?
The question will elicit howls of protest from many conservatives, who will claim that the history of the United States of America proves the provenance of this document. On a philosophical level, I believe this principle of modern conservativism (widely embraced by both Tea Partiers and traditional Republicans) must get a mixed grade. The idea that any practice of government is rooted in a text, a work of literature, is awe-inspiringly beautiful. But any psychologist or philosopher trained in Pragmatism, Existentialism or analytic philosophy will immediately suspect that it’s the human impulses behind the practice of constitutional government that makes things actually happen, and that the document itself has been used as a tool — an excellent one, but a passive instrument nonetheless — by politicians following their own various agendas.
Of all the philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein has been the most persuasive in showing us how flexible and transitory language is, and how insubstantial any text is when the element of human will and interpretation is removed from it. Constitutional originalism remains extremely popular and powerful today, but for all its appeal — who doesn’t want to believe that a piece of text can have magical powers? — it barely stands up against the ravages of modern philosophy, which has been punching holes in intellectual pretensions of all stripes since the age of Nietzsche.
Anyone who reads this site regularly will be able to guess where I’ll stand on the jingoistic and militaristic aspects of today’s popular conservativism. I’ve written enough about this recently, and don’t need to repeat myself beyond this simple statement: there can never be a philosophical justification for war, and in fact war cannot co-exist with philosophy, because war is the absence of philosophy.
Fortunately for the Tea Party, there is an anti-militaristic half (best represented by Ron Paul) to balance it’s guerrophilic half (best represented by tough-talkin’ Sarah Palin), and many conservatives are thinking broadly enough to realize that the human race’s addiction to war and militarism is a dead end for everyone on the planet. These voices have not been heard enough in Tea Party media coverage, but it’s heartening that the voices are there.
This has been a very broad look at three core principles of a fascinating cultural movement. I’m sure I’ve painted with too wide a brush, and I’ll be happy to be corrected or englightened on any point I’ve missed or misunderstood. What do you think about the philosophy of the Tea Party?