What is one to make of the Tea Party?

What is one to make of the Tea Party? Where does it fall on the left/right, or liberal/conservative line that separates our national political parties? And how does the Tea Party affect the division into Red and Blue states that we have become accustomed to see on the electoral map?

To grasp the meaning of the Tea Party we need to understand political parties (of which the Tea Party may now be one) for what they are, — associations of  somewhat like minded voters, held loosely together by shared views on one or more single issues, such as taxation, health care, global warming, national defense, immigration, or education.

But political parties, representing differences of opinion at one level, do not affect the ability and readiness of all Americans to come together at other and much deeper levels, such as when joined together as one under the threat from Japan and Germany during World War II, from the Soviets during the Cold War, and at the present time from the Al-Qaeda terrorists armed principally with their WMD,  a seemingly inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers.

I would point out also that political parties have life and vibrancy only in democracies. In fact political parties, representing as they do the people who are governed, may be the single most distinctive feature of a democracy, any democracy.

The claims of nations without parties to be democracies, such as the claims of the so-called Peoples’ Republics of the Cold War Era, as well as of China, Cuba, North Korea and their like today, are simply not believable.

In any case we needn’t at all be distraught by the appearance of the Tea Party. In fact nothing is more American than that one, or similar groups of people, looking beyond the established channels for representation.

In fact, nothing is more normal. The Tea Party is just one apple fallen from the tree of democracy that is America. What should surprise us is that there are not more of these apples, all the time, falling to the political ground.

To understand the Tea Party, as well as political parties in general in America, the left/right line, dating from the way delegates at the National Assembly during the French Revolution were seated —supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left— will no longer do. Left/right and their alter egos liberal/conservative need to be replaced.

By what? In what follows I make use of science writer Timothy Ferris’ analysis of political positions in his book, The Science of Liberty.

In the second chapter of his book, Science and Liberalism, Ferris shelves the single dimensional line and introduces the two dimensional triangle, labeling the three points liberal, conservative, and progressive.

And while using his image I’ll take it even further than he does because I see it as something, unlike the line whose ends never meet, that holds us all together in one single shape. This is one triangle and we are one people, and even when we cluster at different points of the triangle we are still mostly and fundamentally together.

Also I would even make the comparison of the three points to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, all of which are equally necessary for the proper functioning of our government.

For these three points represent the three fundamental positions of the people in our democracy, in any democracy, all probably necessary for the proper functioning of the electorate. And these three political positions have always been there, no less in the time of the Federalist Hamilton and the Democratic-Republican Jefferson than in our own time of Red and Blue states and of the Republican McCain and the Democrat Obama.

But they’ve been there kind of pell-mell, not clearly distinguished and acknowledged through the chatter and the shouting of the political classes.

The liberal/conservative line didn’t fully represent let alone express the different views that were and are held by the people, and hence recently the large numbers of so-called Independents, as right now when these latter outnumber the Republicans. And hence the often tried and up until now failed Third party initiatives. The fate of the Tea Party in this regard is sill unknown.

It’s true that at present in regard to our political parties, or more importantly in regard to the political opinions of the electorate, confusion does reign. People are all over the political map, desperate for something on which to hang their political hat, and are hanging it anywhere and everywhere.

The three points of Ferris’ triangle bring some much needed clarity to the political opinion arena. The principles and opinions of the electorate may all be understood as some combination of  the liberal, conservative and progressive positions represented on the triangle.

Now it is my own view that all three positions ought to be recognized and legitimated by the government. Parties also need to recognize how much they have in common, not always be squabbling over the things that separate them. Also a party that limits itself narrowly to just one of the three positions will always be a minority party, and may even become irrelevant, as has happened in the past when single issue or single position parties have died.

By the way, I should point out, as Ferris himself does in his book, and as countless others have done before him, that the traditional meaning of the word liberal (now classical liberal is used instead) and stemming from the thinking of Hobbes, Locke, and the American founders, and fostering individual rights and freedoms, has undergone a sea change, coming to mean today the promotion of big government and big government programs.

The loss of the original meaning of the word liberal is tragic, and probably nothing can be done to change this. But the proper word to apply to a strong, active government is not liberal but progressive. To be progressive, “liberal” only in current usage, is to be behind government programs and initiatives directed to help those not able to provide sufficiently for themselves, which more and more under our recent presidents seems to mean nearly everyone.

Of course there will always be large numbers of those in need of help, the poor, the sick, the incapacitated for one reason or another, and democratic governments, our government, will have to some extent provide for them. And to this extent that we go along with this we are all progressives.

But governments should be no less interested in promoting the tenets of classical liberalism, in protecting individual rights and freedoms including the right to own property. And as much as possible they should stay out of peoples’ ways, not interfere by excessive regulations or otherwise, with individuals who are pursuing their own ends without bringing harm to others while doing so. And in fact this kind of government may come closest to being what we mean by liberal democracy.

And the third point on the triangle, the conservative position, is no less necessary than the other two to the proper functioning of a democracy. Culture and traditions, such things as equality under the law, protection of property rights, the free market, the best of what we have inherited from our forbears, all of this has to be properly recognized and protected. No legitimate democratic government can stand by while this inheritance is trampled on or just overlooked and thereby neglected.

So you might ask, should there be just three political parties, representing the liberals, progressives, and conservatives among us? Well yes and no. No, because just as governments have to represent all three positions, because all three is what we are, parties too cannot neglect anyone of the three without risk of being irrelevant.

Parties do become known as being more of the one than the other —Democrats as being progressive, promoting equality, Republicans as conservative, promoting freedom. And new parties, or more often new movements within a party, are always springing up as one or more of our three pillars is seen as being neglected — libertarians being most heard from when freedoms are most in danger, socialists being most heard when income inequalities are most pronounced.

The Tea Party, seeing in the present size and expansion of the Federal government a trampling of individual freedoms, steps up to defend these freedoms. Not too different from the anti-Federalists confronting Alexander Hamilton’s rapid expansion of Federalism in early America.

The Democrats have in my experience been the promoters of government as the protector of last resort of those at the bottom in regard to power and wealth. Republicans again from my own experience, seem to have been fluctuating between classical liberalism and conservatism. At least when at their best. This was not true of them during the reign of George W. Bush when they seemed to be without first principles.

So far the Tea Partiers are not so easily placed at one of the three points of our triangle. They are rather, and most of all an anti-party, and especially an anti-government party, and that’s why it’s been so hard to pin them down. It’s more what they’re against than what they’re for.

Finally, I’m left with the thought that the differences between the parties, and between us the governed, are not all that important. No one is promoting, say, a time when there was no national bank, no national defense, no national social security, nor even no national health care or Medicare for the aged.

And no one is for taking away our freedoms, freedom of movement, thought, and expression. And no one is saying that, those at the bottom, should be ignored and left to fend for themselves.

The differences ultimately among us are differences of style and not of substance. And that’s a good thing. It’s hope for the future. And for all of us, probably in our own lifetimes, we have experienced a closeness to each one of the three, liberal, conservative, and progressive, points on the triangle.

It would help us, and our country, if in our electoral campaigns, and in our candidate debates, we would recognize the legitimacy of the other points of view. Because what we’re really doing in spite of appearances that seem to show one against the other is fine turning our democracy, questioning the underlying classical liberal, conservative and progressive principles on which it is based and which we share even if not in the same proportions.

2 thoughts on “What is one to make of the Tea Party?”

  1. Philip:

    Very well written article. The Tea Party is very much democracy in action and should not come as a surprise given Congress’ abysmal ratings of the past several years.

    What to make of the Tea Party? It’s a fair amount of Americans screaming at both parties – you’ve failed us, haven’t listened and now we’re moving on.

    And it’s “now we’re moving on” that’s scaring the heck out of both the Democrats and Republicans and their media propaganda outlets.

    I think both parties are finally starting to listen and what they are hearing are the footsteps of competition – something neither side in the two party dog and pony show likes.

    Unclear whether the Tea Party lasts or not, but competition is always a good thing as it keeps people honest.



  2. i think the typical tea party person is disenchanted with republicans because they don’t cut gov’t when in power. they expand military, they cut taxes but not spending, and they sometimes even expand social programs (like bush) to hold power.

    in some ways, ross perot was the tea party.


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