Philosophy Weekend: The Philosophy of the Tea Party

American Classics Existential History Politics

Since it's our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.

As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party's loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.

It's not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It's also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws -- Sarah Palin's glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck's rabid rage, Christine O'Donnell's hilarious weirdness -- represent the flaws of the movement at large.

But, as always in a principled argument, we'll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I'm a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I've spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.

I've identified three idealistic principles that seem to be prominent in Tea Party ideology: Libertarianism, Constitutional Originalism and Militarism. Below is a brief summary of how I think each of these core ideals holds up to abstracted philosophical examination. Not surprisingly, my initial findings are mixed: I think the Tea Party is on strong philosophical ground with the first, weaker ground with the next, and extremely weak ground with the last. Here goes:

1. Libertarianism

How odd, and even delightful, that modern-day conservatives are railing against the Establishment! Like the flower-power hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, or the anarchists and punks of the 1980s and 1990s, Tea Party conservatives envision a world without leaders, without heirarchy, and certainly without an all-powerful federal government collecting taxes and enforcing laws from Washington D. C.

The Tea Party does a good job of practicing its preachery here: there is no central organization behind the movement. It has no leadership, no membership, collects no dues -- like Ken Kesey's famous bus, you're either in the Tea Party or you're not. Philosophically, the belief in the ultimate goodness of the free individual that libertarianism implies aligns the Tea Party with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, and there's plenty worse company to be in than Rousseau and Locke.

The problem with extreme libertarianism, though, tends to arise in practice rather than in theory. Rousseau's declared trust in the "noble savage" helped inspire the French to kill their King, but they quickly found themselves kneeling to an Emperor named Napoleon. Extreme libertarianism has an absolutely terrible track record in history; I don't think it's possible to name a single actual success model for it. Even the economic libertarianism ("get the government off our backs") of Ronald Reagan's presidency devolved by the end of his term into gigantic budget deficits and financial scandals (enabled by deregulation). These historical failures present a problem current anti-government conservatives ought to be asked to seriously address, and I'd love to see how they would.

It's also hard to understand how libertarian conservatives can contradict their own beliefs by opposing gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, the continued legalization of abortion. The philosophy of libertarianism itself has an excellent reputation; what's questionable here is whether or not Tea Party conservatives truly embrace it, and whether or not they understand and have learned from past experiments in smaller government or leaderless government that have tragically failed.

2. Constitutional Originalism

I've been amused but puzzled by the obsession of many current conservatives with our founding fathers, particularly George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Glenn Beck openly hero-worships these historical figures on his television show, and he and many others make it a point to stress the alleged Christian sensibilities and quasi-conservative roots of the founding leaders.

On a governmental level, this growing worship or fetishization of the founding fathers coincides with constitutional originalism -- the belief that the U. S. Constitution, a document from 1789, contains the seed of American greatness, and is the basis of our enduring success.

In the real world, Constitutional originalism tends to get yoked to particular hot-button issues, such as slavery, taxation, abortion, gun control, education and health care. That's the problem with Constitutional originalism -- it's too often used opportunistically to block important changes. Still, politics aside, the idea that our government is grounded in a single document -- not in a set of practices, not in a group of elected leaders, but in a text -- is startling enough to be worth considering on its own. Many consider the central place of the Constitution in U. S. history to be beyond dispute, but in fact it's fair to ask: why should we believe that there is perfect wisdom in these words, created by fallible humans?

The question will elicit howls of protest from many conservatives, who will claim that the history of the United States of America proves the provenance of this document. On a philosophical level, I believe this principle of modern conservativism (widely embraced by both Tea Partiers and traditional Republicans) must get a mixed grade. The idea that any practice of government is rooted in a text, a work of literature, is awe-inspiringly beautiful. But any psychologist or philosopher trained in Pragmatism, Existentialism or analytic philosophy will immediately suspect that it's the human impulses behind the practice of constitutional government that makes things actually happen, and that the document itself has been used as a tool -- an excellent one, but a passive instrument nonetheless -- by politicians following their own various agendas.

Of all the philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein has been the most persuasive in showing us how flexible and transitory language is, and how insubstantial any text is when the element of human will and interpretation is removed from it. Constitutional originalism remains extremely popular and powerful today, but for all its appeal -- who doesn't want to believe that a piece of text can have magical powers? -- it barely stands up against the ravages of modern philosophy, which has been punching holes in intellectual pretensions of all stripes since the age of Nietzsche.

3. Militarism

Anyone who reads this site regularly will be able to guess where I'll stand on the jingoistic and militaristic aspects of today's popular conservativism. I've written enough about this recently, and don't need to repeat myself beyond this simple statement: there can never be a philosophical justification for war, and in fact war cannot co-exist with philosophy, because war is the absence of philosophy.

Fortunately for the Tea Party, there is an anti-militaristic half (best represented by Ron Paul) to balance it's guerrophilic half (best represented by tough-talkin' Sarah Palin), and many conservatives are thinking broadly enough to realize that the human race's addiction to war and militarism is a dead end for everyone on the planet. These voices have not been heard enough in Tea Party media coverage, but it's heartening that the voices are there.

This has been a very broad look at three core principles of a fascinating cultural movement. I'm sure I've painted with too wide a brush, and I'll be happy to be corrected or englightened on any point I've missed or misunderstood. What do you think about the philosophy of the Tea Party?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Buddha, Desire and the Middle Way. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Does Evil Walk Among Us?.
8 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Philosophy of the Tea Party"

by Bill_Ectric on

Levi,
Kudos for offering reason instead of ridicule. That was refreshing. Nevertheless, I agree with all your points and would like to add one more: Didn't a bunch of Conservatives propose amending the constitution back in 1994? Do most Tea Party members try to distance themselves from that "Republican Revolution" movement?

by Ed Blanco on

Mr. Asher,

Great analysis and I agree with your assesment of the Tea Party situation. The Tea Party electoral gains in the Republican primaries is one thing, but winning in a general election is another matter of which sensible, rational and educated voters should have an edge. But we are living in irrational times where liberals and Democrats in general, are not challenging these neanderthals. There is no anti-Tea Party movement and there should be as we neglect these morons to our peril. God save us if brain-functioning voters DO NOT show up at the polls in November. In the end remember what that great philosoper Taco-Bell once stated "people get the government they deserve." Do we deserve this kind of TEA?

by Claudia on

Levi, thank you for this excellent political philosophy of the Tea party. In my opinion, a true test political principles is if one applies them to one's own party as much as to adversaries. I'm not so sure that the Tea party is doing that... If they criticize the current regime for things that their own party leadership did (in the recent past) as well, then they're just playing partisan politics.

by Alan on

I just read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate in one sitting and now, of course, I am an expert on political strategy. But, seriously, you touch on an important point that needs to enter into the public dialogue and I think the book by Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at UCal-Berkeley, offers a good primer on how to do this without surrendering your core principles.

That is, Lakoff insists that must understand where “the other side” is coming from and not waste energy or time denouncing it as idiotic or “fascist” or whatever you choose to impulsively, angrily label it. Just understand it. Then, as Lakoff suggests, “speak from your moral perspective at all times” to it.

Right now, the Tea Party has been successful at hijacking the debate, forcing people to react to what they’re saying, which only (even when it’s being denounced as the wrong-headed message it is) reinforces its importance. They own the enthusiasm market.

Though American are more inclined to support Democratic Party proposals, the voters themselves are unenthusiastic to support Democrats right now because they don’t stand up for their own professed core values. They are always trying to play it safe by appealing to a mythical “moderate” base, always tacking to the right and assuming that those on the left will stay with them because they have nowhere else to go. That is not a philosophy, this is not even an organized gameplan. This is really a policy of retreat and retrench, just trying to stay afloat. If there was a word for it, it would be cynical. However, the original Cynics, whose name has been misappropriated for the modern-day stigma of “cynicism,” professed core values to which they adhered, come Hades or high water. Cynics rejected the trappings of materialism (wealth, power, fame, etc.) in order to simplify their lives. Sounds pretty good to me as a personal philosophy but probably wouldn’t work in modern consumer society like ours.

Lakoff suggests framing the parameters of the debate by proactive and positive proposals, which make the Tea Party’s culture of fear and negativity stand out in sharp contrast.

For example, instead of long disquisitions on health care details or cost effectiveness of various forms of alternative energy sources, progressives need to simply state up front what they believe.

Such as: We have to fix our infrastructure. We can’t just walk away and leave everything broken. It is irresponsible, the behavior of children. Better infrastructure means stronger economic futures for all.

Or: We can’t just ignore the 45 million people without insurance and let them go without basic medical care. It is barbaric, uncivilized and irresponsible.

Or: We can’t just turn our backs on the filth in our air and water. To do so hurts everyone, rich and poor, right wing and left wing, Democrat and Republican. Pollution knows no political ideology. A clean environment also leads to sustained and sustainable economic growth.

The Tea Party is just a front for the plutocrats who want to abdicate any responsibility for the basic needs of the American people. When our nation was hit by the worst environmental catastrophe in its history, Republicans sided with the polluters and the liars. They embraced the well being of BRITISH Petroleum over that of the AMERICAN people. Who is really on your side?

It’s called “framing.” I think Lakoff makes a lot of sense.

by Nardo on

I think the Tea Party is more of a folk philsoophy rather than a philosophy of its own. It dabbles with whatever "feels right" (both in the sense of political and being correct) to it. While combining ideas and achieving synthesis can be good when the limmits of such ideas are understood, it can be dangerous when those idea are not. It can happen to any movement: The New Left of the 60s didn't understand Maoism and Eastern Religions all that well. In its most dangerous form you get people like Jim Jones and his cult, or the fascists. As I said before, synthesis can only be effective when the shortcomings of an idea are understood, and the Tea Party's major problem is that it lacks any slef-criticism of its philosophical pillars.

by Bill_Ectric on

Alan, that makes a lot of sense. Seriously.

by Shelley on

I write about people whose moral perspective was so inherent that they couldn't not speak from it, so I want to add "bravo" to Alan's comment.

I appreciate the tone of the post. The thought I would add is that I think the Tea Partiers' perception that "somebody out there" has too much power is correct.

But they're incorrect that it's the government: it's the corporations.

The Partier's instinct needs to be schooled, not repudiated.

by Willie D on

Hard to see any sincere libertarian strain in the tea party agenda, as incoherent as it is. They do push for reduction in the size of the federal government and a reduction in taxes, but like Republicans in general for the last thirty years there is no consensus on what they would shrink - social security, Medicare, the military? Sadly, they are mostly silent on the authoritarian trend that began under Bush and continues under Obama. The executive now maintains a kill list of American citizens living abroad suspected (but not convicted) of terrorism, suspects are held indefinitely without charge or trial, and dragnet wiretapping is conducted without a warrant. These are all matters that should make a libertarian's blood curdle but the tea partiers are as complacent as the major parties. You rightly point out the militaristic strain of the tea party, which is far more prominent than respect for individual liberty. Indeed, these principles are opposed, and it is a safe bet that if the tea party influences national politics, it will be in the direction of more jingoism and less liberty.

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