Originally published September 17, 2010 in the Badger Herald, University of Wisconsin student newspaper
Ron Johnson. Ring any bells? If you’ve been following Wisconsin politics, it might, but before the 2010 Republican primary, it probably wouldn’t have. And yet, this relatively unknown plastics manufacturer has just won the Republican nomination for United States Senate with 84% of the vote.
Russ Feingold. Recognize that one? For almost 18 years he’s represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, and yet the relative no-name Johnson is sharply contesting his seat. The polls show that the two candidates are virtually neck-and-neck in what should be a fierce competition this November.
It probably will surprise no one that Johnson can thank a Tea Party endorsement for much of his momentum. It’s a trend we’re seeing across the country—previously unheard of candidates, backed by the Tea Party, suddenly spring to the national stage, threatening the seats of Republican and Democratic politicians alike. The Tea Party is filled with charismatic leaders, and individual rallies have drawn crowds in the tens-of-thousands. The strength of the movement resides largely in the fact that, more than any other political institution, they have been able to articulate the frustration gripping the American masses.
But with steadily increasing political sway, what exactly does the Tea Party stand for? How will these libertarian candidates fare when it comes to governing? Thus far, much of the party’s strength has derived from its ideology—an ideology that has been defined much more by what it’s against than what it supports.
Tea Party rhetoric has been anti-Obama, anti-taxes, and anti-government. It’s an understandable reaction to a country with huge deficits, a decade of war, and a sputtering economy. But outrage alone will not produce meaningful change, nor will orthodox conformation to libertarian ideals. While tapping into the discontent of the masses might draw crowds and create front-runner candidates, at some point that fervor needs to translate into actual governing and effective policy.
The Tea Party, as it has currently articulated its goals, doesn’t seem ready to fulfill that task.
According to the its main website, the Tea Party’s mission consists of 1) fiscal responsibility, 2) free markets, and 3) limited government. Great! I think that’s something we can all agree on. But when actually governing a state, concessions must be made. Each of these ideals, when extended to its fullest, has very real contradictions with the others, not to mention substantial problems when it comes to practical implementation.
Let’s take, for example, the state of the economy, arguably the original source of the current popular frustration. There are few who would say that the banking collapse was brought on by too much regulation. On the contrary, the unrestrained forces of the free market allowed the national (and global) economy to be brought to its knees by a handful of profit-driven investment firms. And yet, when it comes time to make changes to our financial regulatory system, a national amnesia seems to set in. Suddenly, Tea Party activists claim that governmental constraints on the banking industry are killing American prosperity!
I can understand opposition to TARP (a.k.a. the “Bank Bailouts”) as an argument that holds some weight. I get the idea that businesses should be allowed to fail, though I disagree in this particular instance. The financial reform bill, however, attempts to ensure that government “bailouts” will never again be necessary. We will not have to make the choice between letting the economy fall or supporting it with our tax dollars.
Tea Party idealism here just doesn’t make practical sense. In order to ensure the “free market” and “limited government,” their proposed solution would sacrifice the economic security of the United States. That doesn’t seem too “fiscally responsible” to me. If these, or any, ideals are pursued to absolution, they will necessarily contradict other valuable ideas. If there’s anything that can be said about politics, it’s that no issue is purely black-and-white. Ignoring the subtleties of compromise ultimately undermines your own platform.
If the Tea Party wants to maintain itself as a driving force in American politics, something’s got to change. Just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it's good policy. If, and more likely when, Tea Party candidates make it to congress, they need to find some way to reconcile their ideology with practical governing tactics.
To quote one of the most enduring phrases to ever to come out of a Spider-Man comic, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This up-and-coming party has shown that it has great power. Now, it has the responsibility to promote policies that actually make sense.