Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Tea Party

This post has sort of been *ahem* brewing in my head since late October/early November of last year. There are many reasons for this delay--election season, finals, the holidays, etc--but perhaps it was for the better as now we have a bit of perspective. The impetus for writing was a at least semi-scientific survey I came across--more on that in a minute--and an article I came across giving something of a brief history of the Tea Party to that point. Now, after the election, and with the new Congress about ready to get down to business, it is fairly clear that the Tea Party is going to have at least some staying power in American politics, and that makes a sort of retrospective analysis seem appropriate.

The very interesting Wall Street Journal piece "Birth of a Movement" has it that while small pockets of protesters began coming out of the woodwork during the Bush bailouts, the watershed moment was Rick Santelli's February 19th 2009 rant from the floor of the stock exchange in Chicago.

That is probably as good an event to pick as any. But before the epithet of choice for the guy in a tricorn hat waving a Gadsden Flag and throwing tea into bodies of water was "teabagger," it was "Paultard."

On November 5th, 2007, Ron Paul raised $4.2 million dollars in 24 hours. No one connected to the campaign was involved with planning it--I am reasonably certain none of them knew about it before the money started rolling in, and if they did, they certainly didn't expect it to get as crazy as it did. I remember following this on The Daily Paul and being awestruck (I stopped going to The Daily Paul after it was overrun by conspiracy types for a period...I don't know if this is still the case.). What was even cooler was this other site, though, which I am surprised to find still exists: The site harvested date from the campaign's widget and used it to calculate things like estimated new donors, and you could watch all kinds of graphs updating in real time, which was especially fun whenever there was a money bomb.

Which brings me to the point I was trying to make--the second money bomb was on December 16th, 2008--the 234th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. In addition to an even bigger money bomb (Wikipedia has the total between $6 and $6.6 million, arguably still the largest amount donated to a campaign on a single day. Roughly half of these donations came from people who hadn't given to the previous effort. A video promoting the money bomb went quasi-viral...there were a lot of very well done amateur Ron Paul campaign videos back then, now that I think of it, many of which struck quite an emotional chord with me at the time.

See Also: "Don't Tread on Me," "The High Tide."

I would be remiss at this point if I didn't mention the name of Trevor Lyman who put a lot of effort and imagination into the grassroots fundraising. We also have him to thank for the Ron Paul Blimp, which is hilarious and awesome.

Anyway, as much as I love reliving the high point of the '08 primaries, I've started to drift a bit. The point is that a lot of the feet-on-the-ground activists associated with the Ron Paul campaign (often organized through MeetUp)had adopted the whole retro-American-colonial-era look long before there was a "Tea Party Movement." Here's a description of some of the Ron Paul Tea Party events in Boston in December 2007 from the Boston Globe: Ron Paul's tea party for dollars and here's a follow-up: Ron Paul raises millions in today's Boston Tea Party event. Here's an alternate take from the Washington Post: Ron Paul Beats Own Fundraising Record. Again--tricorn hats. Gadsden flags. Tea bags. Sound familiar?

Apart from the trappings of the modern Tea Party movement, we also see some of the language originating in the Paul campaign as well as some of the issues. No one was talking about the importance of the Constitution and the legacy of the founders before the Paul campaign. No one was chanting "end the Fed," either.

Ron Paul, of course, did not win the primary...but some of the funds raised ended up as seed money for Campaign for Liberty and Young Americans for Liberty, so it can't be said that nothing positive came of the money bombs. I remember thinking at the time that maybe he should have spent more than he did on the primaries, but in retrospect it probably wouldn't have mattered.

The end of the campaign season left a whole lot of Ron Paul meetup groups with nothing to do, and I suspect that a great many of them became some of the original Tea Partiers. The next big "Tea Party" event was what people called the "Tax Day Tea Party," a series of simultaneous rallies scheduled on and around April 15th, 2008. There was an event in Pittsburgh, but I did not attend...I don't recall whether I had heard of it or not.

It was around then that the national umbrella groups started to congeal and FreedomWorks started trying to ride the wave. It was also when Glenn Beck began becoming more of a Tea Party September, the 9/12 crowd had done the whole "let's all go to DC for a day" thing that would flourish a year later with the whole Rally to Restore Honor thing. In any case by that time the Tea Party was a national story and I'm unlikely to add anything people already don't know by way of rehashing the narrative here.

Which brings us to the lead-up to the 2010 election, and a study I read by an organization called MyType. They get their data from Facebook surveys, which probably introduces some selection bias, but honestly it's probably not that much worse than landline telephone surveys, and they had a very large n. I've quoted the executive summary below.

MyType, a psychographic opinion research firm, surveyed over 17,000 Americans about the Tea Party to reveal the demographics, values, morals and personalities of the movement's supporters. Looking for the defining characteristics of a presumably cohesive party, MyType instead found the movement in the middle of an identity crisis. According to MyType's data, devoutly religious conservatives comprise 22.5% of the Tea Party and are its fastest growing segment. They bring with them a fundamentally different set of values, morals and personalities than libertarian supporters, a core group that represent 17% of the party. While the former tend to be morally charged, family-oriented traditionalists, many libertarian supporters are neither religious nor traditional – rather, they are independent, intellectual, and morally permissive. The rising prominence of religious conservatives within the movement, highlighted by recent religious right rhetoric from several prominent figures affiliated with the Tea Party, appears to be driving away libertarians and others. Despite the surge in support from religious conservatives, overall support for the Tea Party is in decline.

The complete study is available here. The results are summarized here, which is a nice intermediate-length read that I got a lot out of. I had always suspected that the Tea Party movement had a split personality, and the researchers were able to come up with distinct libertarian and Christian conservative psychological profiles that fit large portions of the movement.

I did attend the second Tax Day Tea Party event in Pittsburgh on April 11, 2009. Alan Keyes (barf) was the keynote speaker. I wore my "Students for Ron Paul" shirt, which was pretty well received. I also went to several Tea Party events in the summer of 2009 as part of my internship with Bureaucrash. These events were attended by a hodge-podge of paleoconservatives, libertarians, Libertarians, Objectivists, veterans groups, and one or two guys wandering around aimlessly with conspiracy theory signs (Almost always male, almost always with unkempt beards. Or maybe that's just my imagination filling in the gaps in memory, who knows.) Occasionally an abortion group would show up but other than that I didn't run into any culture warriors. There was dialogue. You could talk to these people, and they'd listen with interest.

As summer headed into fall and the election grew closer, the trend was a libertarian exodus and a religious conservative influx. Some have speculated that this was because religious conservatives are joiners whereas libertarians aren't. I don't think that explains it entirely. If it were true (and I'm not so sure that it is as true as the stereotype would have you believe), it would go a long way in terms of showing why the schism was causing one faction to leave rather than the other, but it doesn't explain there being a schism in the first place. Moreover, it doesn't explain why so many from the religious right would join a movement that had a fairly strong libertarian streak at the time.

My take is that what we're seeing happen to the Tea Party was probably inevitable from the beginning, for several reasons. First, there are only so many libertarians, and you can only convert people so quickly. The larger a "libertarian" movement gets, the less likely it is to be actually libertarian. Second, it isn't as though the religious conservatives just came out of nowhere. Many of them were probably in the movement from the very start, only at first the fault lines weren't visible. In the early days, the Tea Party was widely conceived as a movement about economic policy only. The libertarian and religious conservative elements (and presumably a variety of other elements) could coexist so long as "social issues" remained on the back burner (Let's leave aside for a moment whether such a dichotomy makes sense.)

The rub is that you don't have the option of not talking about social issues when you're running for office, and both moderate GOP primary opponents and liberal general election foes were eager to make Tea Party candidates talk about social issues. Being anti-bailout, anti-tax, anti-nationalization of industry was a good place to be in terms of popularity back in November. Being an incumbent was not. What we saw, I think, was a desperate effort on the behalf of establishment candidates to make the elections about something, anything, other than the economy.

This trend produced some bizarre political ads.

This one makes me laugh every time, although it isn't as bad as some pundits made it out to be. It was a risky ad that backfired to a degree.

Christine O'Donnell is obviously not the sort of person I'd ever vote for, but the fact that she felt compelled to go on television and deny that she's had congress with the beast strikes me as wrong on several levels. Speaking of the occult...

Is this even real?

That was a rhetorical question. It's real. Also, Aqua Buddha is my new god. You heard it here first, folks.

I get the sense that the media and other candidates just had no idea what to do with the Tea Party candidates...I think that this confusion was twofold; they didn't understand their tactics (even now most folks in Washington see politics as a top-down game), and they didn't understand where they were coming from ideologically. I won't deny that some of the vitriol directed at Tea Party candidates and the Tea Party generally is deserved, but I think a large portion of it is just the reaction of a group of people faced with something they both cannot understand and believe themselves to be above. I mean really, populist Constitutionalist conservatives? And they dress up in costumes? They're obviously rank amateurs, and all we have to do is wait for them to self-destruct while mocking them unceasingly. Leave politics to the professionals.

Of course, while in some places things played out according to the establisment candidates' script, there were enough races where things didn't go down quite so simply.

And so Ron Paul's son is a Senator, and Harry Reid somehow got out of the race of his life (in a manner, incidentally, that I think smells to high heaven of foul play...but I haven't researched the matter thoroughly enough to know one way or the other), we had a write-in candidate somehow win in Alaska. Democrats were given a shellacking, and yet it seems like it's the Republican leadership that is the most terrified of anyone.

Then this nonsense down in Arizona happened. I have to admit I was expecting a bunch of noise from all sides about how we shouldn't politicize the tragedy and whatnot, but instead what happened was this bizarre race to point fingers followed by a series of "well-I-nevers" and takings of umbrage. And claims of blood libel...which is a can of worms I'm content to let rot on the shelf.

Getting back on track--we had this election. The Tea Partiers all lost the "don't talk about gays and weed" game they had been playing so well; indeed it would have been nigh-impossible to navigate an election cycle without opening Pandora's box. This is important because it has, I think, rather strong implications in terms of libertarian political strategy.

There is, of course a time and a place for coalitions and big tents and setting aside differences with conservatives (including religious conservatives and hard-core neocons, with particular care taken). What the Tea Party experience should have taught us is that electoral politics and grassroots activism is not the place. This brings me back to my dangling thread from earlier. There aren't really any "social issues" and "economic issues." Economic activity takes place in a social context; indeed it would be silly to try and describe an economic system apart from describing a social system. Issues like drug use and immigration, which some call "social," are in fact perhaps more reasonably seen as instances of a product ban and artificial barrier to trade in the labor market. The line is getting a little tired at this point, but I'm going to repeat it nonetheless: there is one freedom, and it is indivisible. We should have remembered that it is indivisible conceptually, and we have been reminded that it is indivisible practically. What we need to be doing is getting people to think about political issues in a systematically libertarian way. The a la carte approach, where libertarians are seen as oddities that are a hybrid of economic conservatives and social liberals, picking and choosing various positions from both sides, has to go. It is bad for branding and hinders libertarian activist efforts as a practical matter. I will say it again: we need to find ways to get people to think like libertarians, not get them to adopt positions which happen to be libertarian on a given issue. "Fusionism," as the doctrine of libertarian-conservative alliance is called, is a relationship where one party sees nearly all of the benefit, and here's a hint: it smells of elephant dung.

We need to stay on-message. The left and the right are hypocrites; the state is inimical to freedom, it is an instrument of violence which various political factions seek to wield for their own benefit, it is an unsuitable means of managing the increasingly complex network of human relationships we call society or civilization, and it must be severely curtailed if not abolished as both an ethical and a practical matter.

And that, I think, about concludes my remarks on the Tea Party.

UPDATE: David Boaz has weighed in, and he is considerably more optimistic than I have been above. Some food for thought here.