Not since 1938 have Republicans gained so many seats in a single Congressional election as they did in the recent election. Voters were not merely angry, but were aware of the policies of the party they voted against. There is good reason to think that voters’ attitudes this November reflected their conscious evaluation of our government and its Democratic leadership
At the same time, critics who downplay the significance of the election rightly point out that opposition to the Democrats and their policies does not translate into support for Republicans and theirs. Republicans may be the short term beneficiaries of anger over the economy, but they were the targets of the same discontent just two years ago. Given their poor track record of containing government growth, American voters clearly weren’t offering Republicans their unqualified support
It is beyond doubt that Tea Party activism played a key role in the election. If they wish to avoid a return to the policies of Bush and Obama, Tea Partiers must not become complacent about the Republican victory. They must continue to pressure Republican leaders to respect the ideals of limited government and individual freedom that motivated the grassroots Tea Party movement in the first place. Through its unwavering commitment to Bush’s lavish spending and expansion of the welfare state, the Republican leadership has demonstrated its lack of commitment to these ideals. It must be made to respect them. Any Republican politician who does not live up to his promises should be challenged in the 2012 primaries by Tea Partiers who are committed to the ideals they championed in 2010.
But critics who downplay the significance of the latest election may also realize that American voters’ commitment to the ideals of limited government and individual freedom is itself mixed. In the days of gridlock ahead, Tea Party proposals to cut government spending will be met with charges that they are “mean-spirited,” that they have no compassion for the poor and the unemployed, that they do not remember the Judeo-Christian conviction that self-sacrifice is a moral obligation. This will bring the Tea Partiers, many of whom lean in the direction of religious conservatism, into conflict with their own basic moral values.
In a letter to Abigail Adams in 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.
There is a broader wisdom behind Jefferson’s oft-quoted line. When Tea Partiers are faced with the choice to cut social spending or face a skyrocketing deficit, they’ll need to begin and sustain an intellectual rebellion against the moral ideals of the past. As we argued in an earlier post, Tea Partiers need to revolutionize their understanding of morality if they want to repudiate the current political regime. They need the courage to see that upholding the ideals of limited government and individual freedom require abandoning the tyrannical principle that we are our brothers’ keepers.
Image by Valery Publius