Tea Party Internationalism

What is the Tea Party’s foreign policy?  Walter Russell Mead has an answer.  In Foreign Affairs, he links today’s right-wing populism with that of the 1830s, embodied in the person of Andrew Jackson.  The common thread, Russell Mead claims, is an anti-establishment ethos: “The Tea Party movement is best understood as a contemporary revolt of Jacksonian common sense against elites perceived as both misguided and corrupt.”

Curiously, this wariness of venal decision makers, so pronounced when it comes to domestic matters, all but vanishes at the water’s edge when America’s national security is perceived to be threatened abroad.  No nefarious motives are assumed of policy mandarins then.  It’s an inherent paradox of right wing populism.

The Tea Party has not resolved this contradiction.  While some modern-day Jacksonians advocate a foreign policy that mirrors their belief in limited government, and are consequently inward looking and isolationist, most support a more robust global footprint.  As Russell Mead puts it, the Paulites, named after libertarian Congressman Ron Paul, have lost the ideological battle to the Palinites, who reflect the interventionist foreign policy favored by the former Alaskan governor.

As the Tea Party goes, so goes the GOP.  The near unanimity of opinion among the leading presidential candidates regarding the virtues of an interventionist posture is striking.  Aside from Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the main GOP hopefuls are engaged in one-upmanship over who is more hawkish.  Stay the course in Afghanistan?  Check.  Impose a no-fly zone over Libya?  Absolutely.  Pay obeisance to Bush’s so-called Freedom Agenda?  Darn right.  “Once upon a time, there was a debate within the [GOP] between realists…and the neocons,” Elliot Abrams, a veteran Republican foreign policy hand told Politico.  “It seems like realists have lost that debate.”

That debate may be settled, but has it been settled coherently?  Hardly.  The Tea Party’s supposed commitment to fiscal prudence runs counter to an aggressive foreign policy requiring that America go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, as John Quincy Adams warned against.

This is no small inconsistency.  Self-described deficit hawks in Congress have suggested killing off entire departments to stem what GOP Indiana governor and potential presidential contender Mitch Daniels called the “new red menace.”  But the same group, often flying the Tea Party banner, vows not to touch the Pentagon budget, which tops $725 billion annually, the largest tab in constant terms since the end of World War Two.  Yet many Tea Party-backed lawmakers want to spend even more.

Once again, Haley Barbour is a lone voice of reason.    At a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, he told a crowd of GOP faithful: “Anybody who thinks you can’t save money at the Pentagon has never been to the Pentagon.  If we Republicans don’t propose saving money on defense, we won’t have credibility on anything else.”  Barbour’s iconoclasm perhaps explains why he’s considered a long shot for the GOP presidential nomination.

But an even more glaring inconsistency riddles these supposed libertarian avatars that have embraced an ideology, neoconservatism, which at its core seeks to empower the government at the expense of the individual.  The point is forcefully made by C. Bradley Thompson, a professor at Clemson University.

In Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, Thompson argues that the political philosophy is fundamentally elitist.  He quotes neoconservative founding father Irving Kristol, who said that it is possible for a small number of enlightened leaders “to have an a priori knowledge of what constitutes happiness for other people.”  (Presumably, Kristol counted himself among the visionaries).  The benighted rabble, on the other hand, incapable of knowing what was in their best interest, was best served by deferring to their intellectual betters.  The notion implies the subordination of the individual to a state run by philosopher-kings.

From this unabashedly anti-democratic view flows a foreign policy that seeks salvation for (and from) the vulgarized masses at home by saving the world from tyranny.  Such is the national mission.  Writing on the website of the CATO Institute, the libertarian think tank, Thompson concludes: “My deepest fear is that the neoconservatives are preparing this nation philosophically for a soft, American-style fascism—a fascism purged of its ugliest features and gussied up for an American audience.”

The Tea Party, which fancies itself as a defender of the democratic realm against ghastly elites, would deny Thompson’s claim.  But our recent history demonstrates that these modern-day Jacksonians are treading in dangerous territory, flirting with a worldview at odds with the egalitarian founding principles upheld by the nation’s greatest leaders, including Old Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson.

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