Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Tea Party Ideology

Michael Gerson


October 29, 2010
by Michael Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Some very important choices in American politics are now being made—both on the composition of a new Congress and the governing approach it will bring.  A key element of an expanded Republican coalition will be the Tea Party movement.  It is diverse and decentralized, but soon it will have a part in power.  Its views on social engagement will matter greatly.  But those views are still being defined.            

At the most basic level, the Tea Party movement is a backlash against government spending, debt and deficits.  It has been united by opposition to bailouts and the new health care entitlement, rather than by a particular political philosophy.  Less than 10 percent of Americans consider themselves members of the Tea Party movement, but sympathy for their ideals reaches much broader.  One recent survey found that more than 50 percent who identify themselves as members of the movement also consider themselves conservative Christians.  As the most energized portion of the electorate, these voters have a disproportionate influence in American politics.             

But how will they help to govern?  The movement is sometimes called libertarian, which is only accurate for a small portion of these activists.  Most in tea party would call themselves “constitutional conservatives,” which has a specific meaning.  It implies, not just respect for the Constitution, but a belief that the federal government should have no power or role that isn’t specifically enumerated in the Constitution.  It is a simple, appealing idea.  But it is also mistaken and disturbing.             

The consistent application of this ideal would be quite radical. The Constitution does not specifically mention retirement insurance, health care or unemployment insurance.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal unemployment benefits would all need to be abolished.  This would amount to a practical libertarianism of remarkable ambition—the deconstruction of the modern state.

Such a governing agenda is utopian, historically uninformed and certain to be disappointed. The federal government expanded in response to specific challenges: the crisis of capitalism in the 1930s, World Wars and a Cold War, the broad democratic desire to relieve poverty and provide health care in retirement. It is neither practical nor possible for America to return to the government of an 18th century farming republic. In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 14 million of the elderly into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism.

Thinkers such as Alexander Hamilton and a number of Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that the Constitution grants broad powers to the federal government to impose taxes and spend funds to “provide for the general welfare.”  This was a contrast to the weak federal role set out in the Articles of Confederation and a source of strength for the new nation. 

It is a valid goal to reform the modern state, which is often top-heavy and inefficient.  It is a radical goal to effectively abolish the modern state, with little concern for the human consequences. And it is eventually a politically disastrous course to oppose the federal highway system, the minimum wage and the desegregation of lunch counters, all federal roles not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. 

To play a positive role in our politics, the Tea Party movement will need a more workable theory of the role of government.  It has been said that “ideas have consequences.”  It is also true that simplistic ideas often have bad consequences.   

—Michael Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in the Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).   

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