The Deeper Consequences of the Tea Party Movement

At the risk of paying too much attention to a phoned-in op-ed, I’d note Joe Scarborough’s pandering argument at Politico that the Tea Party Movement has been good for the GOP because (a) it has been associated with electoral success, and (b) it was responsible for preventing the GOP from totally caving in to Barack Obama’s agenda.

Argument (a) is at least plausible, though highly vulnerable to a post hoc ergo propter hoc objection. I’d say the 2010 results were more attributable to a terrible economy and eternal midterm election turnout patterns than to the “enthusiam” generated by town hall protests or old white folks getting dressed up in tricorner hats. Argument (b) is pretty ridiculous given the decision by the Republican congressional leadership from practically the moment of Obama’s inauguration to fight him on every front. Even on a strategic front, the post-2008 debate within the Republican Party, which lasted about fifteen minutes, produced a move-right-to-win consensus long before Santelli’s Rant launched the Tea Party Movement.

But what Scarborough fails to address at all is a consequence of the Tea Party Movement and its virtual conquest of the GOP that goes a lot deeper than tactics and strategy, or any one or two election cycles: it is in the process of all but abolishing ideological debate within the GOP, via the assertion that “conservative principles” of radically limited government and cultural counter-revolution are permanent tenets of GOP politics that are entirely impervious to circumstances. Through the rubric of “constitutional conservativism,” Tea Folk are raising their policy preferences to what can only be described as a theological level. Laissez-faire capitalism, absolute property rights, and a patriarchal view of culture and family structure are now being posited not just as “values” or as good things for American society, but as immutable, God-given guidance and the only philosophy consistent with the Constitution and the very character of the country. About the only things left to discuss within the conservative movement is foreign policy, where there is actually a division of opinion, and then how to convince the rest of the country to take its medicine and get right with God. To put it another way, ideology and even governing ideas are off the table, and in essence, party strategy has been reduced to tactics.

If I were a Republican I’d be alarmed by this development. Joe Scarborough seems not to have even noticed it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.