The meaning of the tea party

William Voegeli is the author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and a student of welfare state liberalism. As Fred Siegel notes in his review, Voegeli’s book was written just before Obama’s outsize liberal aspirations provoked the Tea Parties to emerge. Voegeli’s book mentions neither Obama’s current fall from political grace nor the corresponding rise of the Tea Party movement. Yet Voegeli’s book provides “far and away the most substantial explanation to date of our current political condition.”
The Claremont Review of Books accordingly calls on Voegeli to consider the meaning of the Tea Party. In his long essay on the movement, Voegeli writes that It’s too early to tell whether the Tea Partiers stand to revive the nation’s founding principles. But it’s not too soon to venture an explanation for the sudden fervor behind the movement.
The Tea Party arose in response to the cult of Obama and the “indulgent season of irresponsibility” during which he has sought the enactment of his big government programs. These programs tend to come in the form of “comprehensive reforms” that conflict with self-rule and common sense. The Tea Party movement in part represents a revolt against the purported experts who seek to manage our lives. We decline to defer to the expertise of our leaders in part because their expertise rather obviously defies the common sense of the matter.
“A leadership class that actually improved ordinary Americans’ security and opportunities would be forgiven condescension worse than Obama’s,” writes Voegeli. It is when government is both disrespectful and ineffectual that people get angry, and this is the origin of the Tea Party. In his conclusion Voegeli restates his thesis in a different form:

The Tea Party mission can be described in another way. What’s at stake in the war conservatives have declared on Obamacare is not only 18% of our economy, but 100% of our polity. If the anger over what the Democrats enacted, and the way they passed it, is replaced by acquiescence, America will have taken a big step toward having not only policies but political processes that are indistinguishable from Europe’s. If the people who brought you Obamacare are not rebuked in the elections of 2010 and 2012, they, emboldened, will pursue further social transformations, regardless of popular opposition. Our ruling elites will eagerly adopt their European counterparts’ posture toward the people: You are wrong. We know better. We will do this, and you will like it. To permit Obamacare to stand is to permit such an assertion to go unchallenged, and guarantee that it will become routine. By their passivity, the people will be complicit in their own disempowerment. As Frederick Douglass said in 1857, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

Voegeli’s essay is the second of three items from the new issue of the CRB that we are previewing here this week. Subscribe here to the magazine and gain access to this fine issue in its entirety.