Goldwater wins: the Tea Party’s unlikely electoral triumph

Several decades ago, in 1964, unsuccessful Republican candidate Barry Goldwater defiantly declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” For better or worse, the phrase has since gone down in conservative history as an article of faith, and in political history as one of the most impolitic and out-of-touch statements ever made by a professional politician. Yet in 2010, this “Goldwater doctrine” appears to have come full circle to be received as electorally savvy wisdom by a populace that appears both infuriated by the overpromising and underperforming Obama administration.  One need not be a political junkie to see this, as even neophytes will admit that the most compelling evidence of a Goldwaterite resurgence in American politics is the insurgent Tea Party. 

Commentators, both hostile and friendly, have by turns assailed and celebrated the Tea Party for being something completely new. While it is certainly new that a group celebrating this philosophy could achieve so much success in one election cycle, the Tea Party’s chosen candidates, platform, rhetoric and general philosophy tell an entirely different story about its origins from the vaguely neo-Perotista image painted by media sources. In most cases, the comparison between Goldwater and the Tea Party is noncontroversial. However, one quite controversial point should be made: like Goldwater, opponents of the Tea Party exult in claiming that the group not only has no solutions to offer, but is vague in the extreme about what it sees as problems with American society. In other words, many believe that the Tea Party is not only an answer to a question no one asked, but to a question no one even heard or understood – philosophically adrift and ideologically confused.

This is partially a communications failure on the Tea Party’s side, but also partially a failure of inquisitiveness on the part of its critics. To use two more (representative) quotes from Goldwater-era figures, Lionel Trilling once noted that “conservatives express themselves only in irritable mental gestures that seem to resemble ideas,” while William F. Buckley was fond of observing that “liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” Both are problems with the modern coverage of the Tea Party.

However, contra the first claim, the Tea Party does have an ideology, albeit one that is based in schools of thought which are almost completely alien to modern American culture – in other words, a counter-cultural ideology. Specifically, the group’s diagnosis of American society is based around the notion that much of American government as we have come to know it is anti-Constitutional, and anti-Constitutional as the term would have been used prior to the advent of sociological jurisprudence in the mid 20th century. The Tea Party’s understanding of the Constitution, it can thus be said, stops at Joseph Story, views the legal realism of Oliver Wendell Holmes with suspicion, and regards the “evolving” view of jurists such as Earl Warren as not only incoherent, but anathema. In answer to the bewildered questions of figures such as Jon Stewart, who have accused the group of misappropriating the Constitution in an overly exclusionary way, the Tea Party would probably reply that the point of a legal document, especially one as vital as the Constitution, is to exclude incorrect interpretations, an anti-relativistic philosophy that flies in the face of much modern legal and moral dogma.

And speaking of morality, one can’t underestimate the oddity which more “mainstream” writers ascribe to the Tea Party’s understanding of the relationship between religion and public life. Perhaps the best example of this attitude comes in the incredulous and mocking reactions to Christine O’Donnell’s questioning the notion that “Separation of Church and State” is in the Constitution, when in fact those exact words do not appear anywhere – they are from a letter by Thomas Jefferson whose relevance to Constitutional scholarship is hotly debated across several generations of scholars. But, the real argument against O’Donnell has matured over the past few days, with people taking issue not just with her substantive Constitutional claim, but with the general normative implication that America is not, and should not be, a secular country. This, too, comes from a school of thought that has been forgotten, with O’Donnell probably influenced by the late 19th century massive tract “The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States” by Benjamin Morris. This book recently became vogue again in conservative circles despite being out of print for over 100 years, but if you were to turn back the clock those 100 years, you would probably find that the work itself would have been conventional wisdom. The book itself is worth a long read by anyone with an interest in the relationship between secularism and the American state, and without passing judgment on its thesis, it can certainly be called a wholly American influence on O’Donnell’s thought, albeit one whose advanced age makes it seem foreign.

And then there is the elephant in the room – the Tea Party’s view of race relations. Here the waters have been muddied substantially both by the Tea Party’s nervy (some would say excessively nervy) critique of Civil Rights legislation on Constitutional grounds, with observers claiming that this critique exposes racial animus. Yet, the Tea Party’s critique of these institutions is not only consistent with the idea that Civil Rights legislation has been effective, but also with the intentions of the framers of that legislation, and, indeed, with previous Civil Rights Acts.

To begin with, contrary to the distortions of figures such as Rachel Maddow, even the most radically libertarian of Tea Party candidates have no doubts about the moral justification of 60’s era Civil Rights legislation. However, even the original gaffe that Rand Paul made posed a more sophisticated question than this – namely, assuming the bill was morally necessary at the time, is it necessary now? Here Paul is quite definitely in the policy mainstream, even if the policy question is politically inconvenient for his party. For instance, it has been raised by prominent Civil Rights scholar Abigail Thernstrom, who has called bills such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act an obstacle to Civil Rights because of the possibility for its controversial Title 5 to be used for the purposes of racial gerrymandering. This provision, as well as several of the other Constitutionally controversial measures in both the Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, were arguably intended as emergency measures for the purpose of ending segregation, to be repealed at a later date. The question of whether they should be repealed now is, at bare minimum, a debate worth having, and to attack Paul, or any Tea Party candidate, as un-American simply for raising the question is more an evidence of a paucity of imagination on the part of critics than genuine extremism on the Tea Party’s part.

In sum, while the Tea Party has been accused of wanting to “repeal the 20th century,” this is neither fair, nor accurate. Rather, the Tea Party stands for a proposition that the 20th century should not be read as repealing the rest of American history, and that if the 21st century is to be as profitable and prosperous for America, all facets of that history must be included.