Reading the Tea Leaves

After a summer of intense partisan political protests and a series of bold, left-leaning initiatives pushed by the new president, it comes as no surprise that conservatism has united to gain traction in recent months. With a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate, it may be a surprise then that a June 2009 Gallup Poll showed that conservatives are currently the single largest ideological group in the United States: with 40 percent of those surveyed describing their political views as conservative, versus 35 percent as self-described moderates, and 21 percent as liberals. Another Gallup Poll conducted in September revealed that 53 percent of those surveyed “believe that the government should promote traditional values in our society,” up from 48 percent last year. Clearly, something significant has been underway recently. The ongoing Tea Party protests began last spring when, on April 15, half a million people in over 800 locations across the country gathered to protest high taxes, big government, the increase in national debt, and a slew of other issues, with a name that refers to the Boston Tea Party. Since then, a multitude of other protests have taken place throughout the nation, the most prominent of which took place on September 12 when over 75,000 people marched from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It was the largest conservative protest ever held in the nation’s capital.

Another issue around which conservatives have organized is the health care reform debate. After the introduction of America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009 and other healthcare reform propositions during the summer of 2009, numerous members of Congress have held town hall discussions to either criticize or exalt the various visions of healthcare reform. These town hall meetings have also suffered interruptions by outspoken citizen-critics of the proposed reform schemes breaking out in vitriolic tirades against not only the policies, but also the Congressmen who champion them. These events have gained widespread attention from the media as a barometer of the current partisan political climate.

President Barack Obama’s approach to policy-making has actually prompted this grassroots conservatism. Prior to his taking office, many viewed him as a moderate, largely due to the efforts of his campaign and various media outlets. Since he has taken office, however, he has pursued what is arguably one of the largest leftward pushes in terms of domestic policy since Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a result, however, his approval rating has dropped and his Presidential Approval Index (taken by subtracting the percentage of surveyed who strongly disapprove of the president’s job performance from those who strongly approve of the president’s job performance) stands at -6, complemented by statistics of 32 percent strongly approving and 38 percent strongly disapproving according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released on September 23. Approval ratings of the federal government, which has greatly expanded its mandate under Obama’s administration, are perhaps even more eyebrow-raising. Sixty-six percent of people surveyed said they are angry at the policies of the federal government. Rasmussen Reports also suggest that people are even angrier now than they were during the Bush administration.

Analysis of the conservative resurgence has fallen strictly along partisan lines. In his April 13 column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman wrote, “The tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re Astroturf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. In particular, a key role is being played by FreedomWorks, an organization run by Richard Armey.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi chimed in, claiming that “It’s not really a grassroots movement. It’s Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.” Conservatives, on the other hand, vehemently insist that these movements are organic and spontaneous, with Glenn Reynolds, a conservative blogger and law professor at the University of Tennessee, claiming, “These aren’t the usual semiprofessional protesters who attend antiwar and pro-union marches. These are people with real jobs; most have never attended a protest march before. They represent a kind of energy that our politics hasn’t seen lately, and an influx of new activists.”

The reality, I believe, lies somewhere in the middle. The anger and frustration of the movement are real and representative of the feelings of many Americans across the nation. The protestors, and those who support their ideals, believe fervently in the ideology they espouse. The logistics and organization of these protests, however, are clearly coordinated by larger political entities, with the three biggest being Freedom Works, DontGo, and Americans for Prosperity.

Undoubtedly, pundits are attempting to capture the energy of the movement in order to boost their relevance and book sales, and conservative politicians are hoping to ride this favorable wave into the 2010 elections. It is important to remember, however, that in spite of some of the unsavory and sensationalistic practices employed by laypeople and political elites alike, there is a genuine passion for the ideals that conservatism offers. Promises of change that have remained largely undelivered have left Americans feeling frustrated and confused. There is an undeniable deep sense of dissatisfaction with how affairs are being conducted; the conservative movement has offered a necessary alternative and an outlet for expression.

This burgeoning conservative movement has held a clear importance in the current political climate, but its exact significance for the long-term remains unclear. The GOP suffered heavy losses across the board in the most recent election, lacks leaders who can truly unite the party, and is in want of a cohesive set of ideological beliefs. With the party in such a weak position, the outpouring of conservative values embodied by the Tea Party movement and town hall meetings is not only an opportunity to make gains, it is also a lifeline which the Party must seize in order to remain relevant in the near future. But what exactly is the ideological and strategic nature of their posturing?

Ideologically, the protests represent a call for a return to traditional conservative ideals of free-market capitalism, individual freedoms, small government, low taxes, and fiscal responsibility. The meaning of conservatism, though, has become distorted over the years and still remains more than a bit ambiguous. Conservatives are beset by one major problem in which their Burkean belief in restraint and traditional conservative ideology cannot be reconciled with the current system of governance. One of conservatism’s main tenets is to value the tried-and-true over drastic reform. In the mission statement published in the premiere issue of the National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr., he wrote about conservatism that, “It stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” Modern conservatives are faced with the conundrum of post-New Deal economic and social policies cemented into the establishment, being at odds with many of their fundamental ideals.

In order to differentiate the GOP from the Democratic Party and win elections, conservatives in recent years have strayed from their fundamental ideology and strategy. The GOP has shifted its ideology from the political embodiment of true conservative ideals, such as capitalism, individual freedoms, small government, low taxes, and fiscal responsibility, to the practice of corporatism, obstructed liberty, expansion of the federal government and the federal debt, and fiscal irresponsibility. Sociologist Daniel Bell asserts in his 1960 book titled The End of Ideology that since Democrats and Republicans concurred on foundational principles such as the government-business partnership and a bipartisan Cold War, the American political system became about “managerial procedures rather than ideological commitment.”

Instead of a commitment to Burkean realism, conservatives have taken on a more revanchist posture. In The New York Times’ “Week in Review” editor Sam Tanenhaus’s new book, Death of Conservatism, Tanenhaus writes, “The paradox of the modern right” is that “its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly un-conservative.” During the Bush presidency, conservatives railed against the liberal elite characterizing them as being out of touch with American values. Christian fundamentalists, who proved to be some of Bush’s greatest allies, aggressively advocated the collusion of church and state. In 2001, he introduced his $1.35 trillion tax cut package. Informed by a neoconservative foreign policy, he took America to two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By the end of his presidency, he had left a puzzling legacy that was, as Tanenhaus writes, profoundly and defiantly un-conservative. This background explains why the current reinvigoration of the conservative ideals represents an immeasurably important shift in the desires of the American public and should reshape and ground the GOP.

Evidence that the party has yet to readopt true conservatism is the large discrepancy between faith in the Republican Party and faith in the Democratic Party. According to a June 2009 Gallup Poll “almost 4 out of 10 (38 percent) Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have an unfavorable opinion of their own party.” When it comes to the percentage of democrats and democratic-leaning independents who disapprove of the Democratic Party, however, the statistic stands at just 7 percent. The Democratic Party clearly represents the ideology of its constituents more accurately than does the GOP. It is incumbent upon the movers and shakers of the party to devise a unifying agenda that average Americans can rally around.

Perhaps now is the “defining moment” for Republicans in which they will be able to find a new philosophical footing by adopting at least some truly conservative beliefs. Such a change would allow the GOP to maximize the political gain derived from the reaction against the initiatives of President Obama and Congress. Many on the left currently criticize the GOP for being too oppositional. They urge Republicans to moderate their views and criticize constructively, claiming that a failure to do so will lead to further electoral disappointments. It is time for the GOP to recalibrate itself ideologically and to return to its classical conservative roots if it wishes to rise from the ashes and once again be Grand. Independent of the party itself and its current limitations, it is clear today that the desires of the American public in the current political climate embody a strong desire for conservatism and its ideals.