Manning the barricades is easy. Governing is not. The challenge of making that transition is one reason why revolutions, like the careers of politicians, tend to end in failure. What, then, of America’s budding insurgency, the Tea Party? Can a resurgent right govern?
The “Contract From America,” the 10-point Tea Party manifesto, provides a clue. The document’s prescriptions are incongruous, confusing, and hypocritical, reflecting the movement’s ideological incongruity, confusion, and hypocrisy. For starters, its call for a balanced budget and end to earmarks dovetail with the manifesto’s guiding principle, limited government, but the same cannot be said of the document’s endorsement of an “All-of-the-Above” energy policy, a conspicuous outlier. Why include it then?
The manifesto’s urging to “Protect the Constitution” is similarly baffling given the Tea Party’s antipathy towards the founding document. In the crosshairs is Article Six, which states federal laws “shall be the supreme law of the land.” Nevertheless, the Tea Party’s allies are challenging the legality of the recently enacted healthcare bill on grounds that states have the right to reject or “nullify” federal laws, a discredited notion hearkening to southern rejection of civil rights legislation.
When undermining the spirit of the law won’t suffice, conservatives are seeking to change the letter of the law. Thus, an effort is afoot to repeal the Seventeenth Amendment stipulating the direct election of US Senators and the Sixteenth Amendment empowering Congress to levy a national income tax. Then there is the Fourteenth Amendment that grants automatic citizenship to anyone born on US soil. Its repeal has also become a cause célèbre for the right. “I’m looking at laws that exist and see if [they] make sense today,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in reference to amending the offending Amendment.
But perhaps most perplexing is the manifesto’s call to “Stop the Tax Hikes” given that taxes have fallen under Obama, not risen. As the non-partisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported last spring, the average family of four now pays 4.6 percent of its income in federal income taxes, the second lowest percentage in a half-century. “It is like arguing whether Jesus rose from the dead,” Bob McIntyre from the Citizens for Tax Justice observed in regards to skewed perceptions about Obama’s fiscal policies. “If you believe it, you believe it.”
That the Tea Party’s manifesto is bogus is no surprise. After all, the movements alleged raison d’être, limited government, itself is a lie. Were it otherwise the Tea Party would have materialized years earlier. Indeed, where were these proud libertarians during the administration of George W. Bush when the size of government grew at the fastest rate since President Johnson’s Great Society? Where were they when our elected leaders, abusing their power, justified a war on dubious grounds and signed off on warrentless wiretapping? And where were they as the previous administration doubled the national debt?
Such contented quiescence during the Bush II years is not an unexplainable paradox. Rather, it can be understood by seeing the Tea Party for what it is: the right wing of the right wing. The popularity of George W. Bush with Tea Partiers bears this out. According to a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 57 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers hold favorable views of the former president, or roughly the same number of the general population that have unfavorable opinions of him.
The unmasking of the Tea Party reveals how a GOP increasingly indistinguishable from its voluble base will govern. But don’t look to the Tea Party manifesto for answers. Ignore it entirely. The documents farrago of complaints is just a thin veneer—a veneer for reactionary anger. And pay no attention to emotional lamentations about the nation’s supposed slide towards socialism. As recent history demonstrates, the right does not have problems with big government, but rather big problems with government it does not control.
What, then, can we expect? For a resurgent GOP, the past is prologue: more tax cuts (for the rich), more burdensome debt. Sure, governing may be harder than manning the barricades, but that assumes that ideological consistency matters. Not for the right. Power is what matters. So as long as Tea Party passion can be harnessed to gain control of Washington, conservatives of all stripes will chant in unison, “Viva la Revolucion!”