The tea party: dead, or still alive?

  • 27 February 2018
  • NormanL
It's not dead yet

We've heard it time and time again: the tea party is dead. Usually, the charge comes from those who never agreed with, and tried very hard to demonize the small government movement that rocked the political world.

But in this essay, the charge comes from someone who was a true believer in the tea party, and worked tirelessly to advance the limited government agenda: former FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe. According to Kibbe, the cause of death was partisan politics:

First, the background for Kibbe's assertion:

Republicans, now controlling both the legislative and executive branches, jammed through a "CRomnibus" spending bill that strips any last vestiges of spending restraint from the budget process.

Gone are the Tea Party's biggest and most hard-fought policy victory—mandatory caps in domestic and defense spending. The budget deal replaces them with $300 billion in new spending over the next two years, and, in all likelihood, sets a precedent for greater spending in the decade to come.

It's 2009 all over again, with trillion dollar deficits, and red ink as far as the eye—or at least CBO projections—can see. As budget deals go, it's a total fiasco.

The supposed fiscal hawks in the House Freedom Caucus drew a line in the sand on House budget plan that was only slightly less bad. They demanded "full funding for the military and community health centers."

In the Senate, Rand Paul and Mike Lee fought the good fight, but they couldn't even convince Ted Cruz to stand firm. Cruz, the one-time Tea Party darling, "reluctantly" supported the spending measure, making sure to itemize all of the spending increases he helped procure with his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, while simultaneously decrying "unfettered spending." Cruz's statement is world class political jujitsu.

And as for the politics, Kibbe says it was a co-option of the tea party by the very politicians who despised it that contributed to its demise:

When Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) defeated Republican incumbent-for-life Robert Bennett in Utah, it sent shock waves through the Republican establishment. Overnight, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) rediscovered his constitutional principles, with a clear eye on his upcoming election there. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was actively opposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in his Kentucky senate race, won handily against the GOP establishment's choice.

We were trying to reboot the system, to make our principles viable in a political marketplace that values special favors over fiscal prudence, and power over principles. The Tea Party shook things up, and our most high profile victories were with candidates with a clearly "libertarian-ish" bent.

But other types of candidates were running as well, and a few of them were totally nuts. Or at least not quite ready for the bright media lights now aimed at every "Tea Party" candidate. In 2012, key races suddenly became about all about rape and abortion rather than economic liberty. At some point the original unifying message was derailed with issues that divided Tea Partiers and other voters alike.

Presidential politics was the final nail in the coffin. How does a decentralized movement choose a single standard bearer? Unlike other races, we couldn't pick our battles.

Then there is what Kibbe calls the movement's final act: the candidacy and election of Donald Trump...

I watched local organizers rip each other and their Tea Party organizations apart, much like Trump tore apart the GOP. Is Trump an authoritarian with little respect for constitutional limits on executive power, or the pit bull needed to finally break the Republican establishment and the deep state?

One thing is for sure: Under Trump, the Tea Party original agenda of freedom and fiscal responsibility has been replaced with a populist nationalism that doesn't particularly prize spending restraint. Many of the original Tea Partiers have been replaced with new activists animated by different issues, such as immigration walls and trade restrictions.

In an odd way, Trump is the product of the same political disintermediation that launched the Tea Party. More voices, and different perspectives, have more power in the political process. This same dynamic boosted Ron Paul and his ideas. It also fueled the rise of Bernie Sanders' "democratic" socialism. Politics, like almost every aspect of modern life, is finally becoming radically democratized.

Movements change along with the personalities. The Reform Party, for example, was once a genuine force in national politics. But it quickly faded without the unifying presence of Ross Perot. Other movements have suffered similar fates. Was Trump's elevation the last nail in the tea party coffin? Kibbe puts some credit there. But a host of other factors were at work, not the least of which were the movement's sucesses. Kibbe takes note of those: this radically decentralized world, a whole new generation is available to learn about the values of liberty and cooperation and, yes, the tough realities of not spending money you don't have. For those who care about limited government, the next step will be to connect with this generation, the liberty curious, to engage, encourage, and organize their collective power towards a common good, voluntarily agreed upon.

So yes, the Tea Party is dead. But the American principles of individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and constitutionally limited government, are all still very much alive.

In other words, the tea party was the spark that ignited a new respect and advocacy for liberty. 

That is an enormous accomplishment. The challenge is to build upon it. We have always believed that the particular inhabitants of political office matter far less in the long run than the attitudes and goals of the people. 

If the people want to limit government, and lessen the fiscal burden of a bureaucratic state, it will happen -- regardless of what that effort is called. It has always been so. Keep the politicians honest, and keep them on the side of liberty. And if they stray or backslide, send them packing.