THE LIMITED DEMAND FOR LIMITED GOVERNMENT…. When Tea Party Republicans first started raising a fuss in 2009, their interests were varied, but their overarching principle related to “big government.” To hear the activists tell it, they feared a growing government that would encroach on American freedoms.

And I remember thinking at the time, “Where were you guys when Bush was tapping phones, reading emails, and conducting warrantless searches?”

I mention this because the Patriot Act, which vastly expanded federal power, is up for renewal in Congress, and the Wall Street Journal noted that the law is expected to be reauthorized, despite the Tea Partiers’ “surge” that “brought to Washington a new legion of lawmakers suspicious of government power.”

Jon Chait explained that the observation itself reflects confusion about what motivates the Republican base.

The fact that this is considered surprising or even newsworthy suggests a widespread misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement. It is not an anti-government movement per se. Tea partiers do castigate Republican leaders for spending too much, but so do Republican leaders. […]

The Tea Party movement represents an intensification of the ideological forces within the Republican Party, not a change. Its anti-government impulses are focused almost entirely on those functions of government that involve redistribution of resources from the fortunate to the unfortunate. Civil liberties were not and are not on the radar.

Quite right. The Tea Party message is often incoherent and contradictory — deficits are bad, but tax cuts that make deficits worse are good; health care reform is bad, but socialized medicine through Medicare is good — but it’s also extremely limited. When they talk about their fears of “government,” what they’re generally afraid of is benefits for those who aren’t like them.

When civil liberties come up at all, it’s only part of a hysterical, paranoid vision in which federal officials will put them in internment camps for not filling out Census forms.

As Adam Serwer noted, “[T]o the extent that ‘power grabs’ are to be feared, it is only in the context of expansions of the social safety net and federal gun regulations. If, on the other hand, you’re worried about the limitless power of the surveillance state because such power has a history of being abused, it’s because you’re a criminal with something to hide.”

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.