For a movement supposedly dedicated (at least in part) to anti-elitism, “Tea Party” was always a strange name. True, the name was meant to conjure up images of the Boston Tea Party rather than demure ladies sipping from china cups, but all the same, the name “Tea Party” was (and is) a strange name for a supposedly populist, neo-Perotista uprising.
This is probably because, as Tuesday’s election results showed us, the Tea Party is not well-suited to this role. In fact, for the Tea Party to remain the symbol of populist discontent would be a serious misuse of its resources. Indeed, the many victories won by the Tea Party last night (as well as its few but crushing defeats) showed one thing, and one thing only – that the Tea Party has the potential to transcend its recent incarnation as a purely negative reaction against the insufficiency of the present elite class, and become a living demonstration of what a classically American elite would look like. Not only that, but the Tea Party is at its best when it does precisely this.
Consider the differences between the candidates who won (or may win) and the candidates who lost, most notably at the Senate level. Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Joe Miller (though the last of these may yet prove to be unsuccessful) could be (and were) accused of harboring many flaws – extremism, conspiracy-mongering, a less-than-charitable attitude toward the free press – but one thing they could not be accused of was intellectual or ideological bankruptcy. Rubio, Paul and Miller all had specific ideas underlying their candidacies, and those candidacies transcended the personal realm so greatly that their opponents came off worse for trying to drag personal issues into such policy-driven races.
Moreover, none of the three men could be accused of being stupid, or of being a liability for their movement’s message. Paul’s early philosophical gaffes on the Civil Rights era notwithstanding, he brought a high-minded attitude to his libertarian-leaning messaging, scrubbed clean of the apocalyptic tones underlying his father’s campaign and practically drowning in pragmatism. Rubio, meanwhile, attracted almost as much adulation from supposed eggheaded RINOs like David Frum for his determination and smarts as he did from Tea Partiers, and is even now being floated by Glenn Beck as a potential Vice Presidential candidate. Finally, Miller, a Yale Law Grad with a distinguished military record and a master’s in Economics, brought a determined, ideological and wonkish sheen to his race, as well as a pleasantly absurdist sense of humor as he mocked Lisa Murkowski with an ad aping the by-this-point infamously viral “Old Spice Man” ads. With accomplishments like these, any of these men could be considered an objectively fine candidate for public office, and there was never any suspicion that those accomplishments somehow compromised their ability to respect the dignity (and autonomy) of the individual. Rather, they seemed to enhance the dignity of these individuals, and through them, that of their supporters.
Would that the same could be said for the losers Ken Buck, Sharron Angle, and Christine O’Donnell. Buck’s loss is probably the least comprehensible of the three, but one thing sticks out about his campaign that marks his counterparts: the tendency to define himself against his foes, rather than for himself. Perhaps the most infamous example was his (widely misinterpreted) remark that he should be elected because he didn’t “wear high heels,” but instead cowboy boots with “real cowboy bulls–t.” In other words, for Buck, as for his counterparts, the fight was primarily about resentment of another person for their inauthenticity and unworthiness, a message which sounds great when touted by 527 groups, but can’t buoy a candidate, whose job it is to run a constructive campaign.
Buck’s failing here was relatively subtle, hence the narrowness of his margin, but in the case of Angle and O’Donnell, the failing only got more pronounced. Angle, who can be credited with inventing a superbly clever campaign line in “Man Up,” (a line which will probably outlive her) nevertheless came off as evasive and weak when it came to defending her own record, and probably looked out of her depth in places. That she was up against the most powerful Democrat in the Senate and had the kitchen sink thrown at her and still managed to be favored going into the election is a testament to how well her campaign was able to manage the final days of the race, but it would’ve helped if they could have done that with her, rather than in spite of her.
And then there is Christine O’Donnell, the woman who will probably make both major parties reluctant to run rookie grassroots candidates for close to 20 years. This is a shame, because there is nothing innately wrong with rookie candidates, but the burden of proof is on them to show that they are up to the challenge, and O’Donnell was not, but not for the reasons most people cite. Her low educational attainments were nothing to complain of (Ronald Reagan was a mediocre student at Eureka College), and her gaffes from her early years, while embarrassing, could’ve easily been laughed off with an “I didn’t inhale” type joke. The big problem with the O’Donnell campaign was that this election was about ideas, and inexplicably, O’Donnell chose to make it about identity. Her campaign commercials, with one effective exception, concentrated on a by-this-point roundly mocked statement of humorless populist resentment: “I’m you,” with the oft-added subtext, “Unlike that filthy Marxist Yale grad who uses big words that I’m running against.” O’Donnell would have done well to read up on Ohio Senator Robert Taft, one of the more conservative Senators of the 20th century, whose wife responded to a question about whether her husband was “a common man” with the indignant response, “Certainly not! We wouldn’t want just a common man representing Ohio!”
And therein lies the rub, because at its heart, the Tea Party has never been a movement purely on behalf of “common people,” but a movement about ideas – ideas which, I hasten to add, were crafted by elite opinion-makers in their day, and remained elite wisdom up until the liquidation of American elitism in the 20th century, when those same people who were expected to be elites turned on their own profession out of guilt, impotence and cowardice. It is this latter phenomenon that the Tea Party has rebelled against, because (according to them) today’s self-professed elites have lost their claim on the title due to stifling conformity and an education system that prizes political correctness over merit. Their claim that Barack Obama and other allegedly meritocratic darlings of the contemporary, liberally-minded elite are not fit for the title thus depends on their ability to pick leaders whose respect for individual freedom is enhanced by a nobility, intelligence, courage and drive exceeding that of their redistributionist rivals, rather than simply trying to humiliate those rivals blindly.
As the Tea Party looks to both lead the Right and humiliate the Left through 2012, it will do well to remember to always look for the best in its leaders before attempting to inflict the worst upon its enemies.