Tea Parties and Political Parties: Some Questions

Christina Jeffrey

Editor’s note: The following article is a departure from our usual postings: an avowedly partisan political statement. It comes from Christina Jeffrey, an NAS board member and, as she indicates, does not represent a position of the NAS itself. We post her essay in light of her underlying concern about whether Americans vexed with the low quality of higher education are in fact politically “homeless.” Indifference to our political heritage on the part of Republicans, and embarrassment towards it on the part of Democrats leaves a wide gap that Jeffrey believes might be filled by the Tea Party movement, which clearly does pit a large stake in American historical literacy. We welcome discussion. 

Tea Parties and Political Parties: Some Questions

NAS members come from many places on the political map and NAS itself stays out of the partisan arena.  But some of us—I serve on the Board—are conservatives, and within this cohort there are a number feeling quite politically homeless.  That’s because we can find no leadership in either party that speaks authentically and effectively to our deepest concerns, including our concerns about higher education. 

But just as America seems to be hitting the wall and statesmanship is nowhere to be found, a new movement is emerging.  In light of our present revolutionary situation the movement calls itself the Tea Party Movement, after the Boston Tea Party.  My essay below explores whether or not the tea party movement brings hope or harm to the political system.

In speaking in general terms about the Tea Party Movement, the major political parties and party leaders, I realize there are many exceptions to my broad generalizations.  There obviously are people in both political parties who are constitutionalists and even tea partiers, and there are also politicians claiming to be tea partiers without truly adopting any of the tea party goals. There are also numerous infiltrators trying to undermine and confuse the budding political tea party activists, but none of these are issues for this piece.  The essay is not an historical treatise, but rather more of a survey of what is happening from the writer’s particular point of view as both an academic and a political activist serious about seeing America continue to fulfill her exceptional promise to be a “City on a Hill” and a beacon of hope for all who believe in freedom and self-government.

Finally, the views I express are mine, not those of the NAS, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with members from across the political spectrum.

The Ruling Class

Angelo M. Codevilla, professor of international relations at Boston University, writing this month in the American Spectator (July-August 2010),  has some wise words for all of us, academics and non-academics alike, who are shut out of the American Ruling Class (RC), a class defined by the amount of political power one can leverage.  The RC consists largely of politicians, journalists, academics, nonprofit entrepreneurs, CEO's, and wealthy individuals who are "enlightened" and "progressive."  In his provocative piece, Codevilla argues that conservatives have no choice at the moment but to work with the Republican Party, which is less bad than the Democrat Party.  I might add that the GOP also tends to have generally good and principled platforms, hammered out by grassroots people who care about issues important to those outside the Ruling Class.

Republican members of the Ruling Class, like Bob Dole, run on platforms they have not read and even brag about not having read them.  But there are not a lot of Republicans in the Ruling Class since Republican platforms keep them out, for the most part, even if they don't read them and don't follow them. Frankly, it is just too déclassé to run on "right-wing" positions. Most Republican leaders are not RC members either.  Not surprisingly, some powerful politicians, both Democrat and Republican, criticize the tea parties because they know protestors are unhappy with both parties. The political parties protect incumbents, so there is good reason for this animosity.

Secretly, too many Republican leaders and office holders would really like to be members of the Ruling Class. That is a problem for conservative Republicans, because as long as its leaders want to be accepted by those whose vision of America is one that is contemptuous of the sovereignty of the people, conservative Republicans will continue to feel alienated from their party. The truth is, those Republicans wishing to be seen as enlightened and progressive, might as well join the Progressive Party, that is, the Democrats.  People in the tea parties call these folks RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and the name fits.

Burning Questions

Is a new party really necessary? Can the Republican Party reform itself?  And, will the newly elected "tea party" representatives be allowed to provide real leadership in their new posts or will senior GOP members instead succeed in co-opting them as soon as they arrive in Washington? Are Republican Party leaders willing to give up their dreams of individual glory and acceptance in the RC to save their party? Many Republicans have no RC ambitions and will gladly participate in reform. They are eager and willing to have a party worthy of its platform, with representatives who actually represent the real Republicans at the grassroots. But will these Republicans be allowed to change the direction of the party, a direction that is currently headed toward political convergence with the Democrat Party. Can the tea parties lead the way to political reform?   

I come to this question as a participant, not just an observer.  I helped form the largest tea party in South Carolina. Our state’s Congressional fourth district representative, six-term Republican incumbent Bob Inglis was defeated in this year’s June primary.  I helped as a candidate, but the tea party played a major role, though more as a cheerleading squad than as a source of on-the-ground organization.  Cheerleading is important for its own sake.  The numbers generated by tea partiers have already enabled a tea party favorite, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, to start a Tea Party Caucus in the House.  Most tea partiers are middle class and well-informed and Congress is being forced to listen to them. Those who won’t will suffer the same fate as Mr. Inglis.

There is a reason for this inexperience.  As Codevilla points out, Americans once had many more opportunities for political involvement. The colonists honed their governing skills by actually running their towns and communities.  In addition to government, there were all kinds of associations for Americans to get involved with, including education, which was usually parent-directed. Even as late as the 1940's, there were about 10 times as many school districts as there are today, and one's school taxes went directly to schools close to the taxpayer's home. Until the modern era, Americans were much more involved organizationally and politically. Today, they are mere watchers of the experts who run their schools and communities.  Americans were told that experts could do it better, that things were too complicated for them to manage.  But as they are beginning to pay more attention to exactly how these experts are doing (to say nothing of what), more and more they are protesting their loss of influence and freedom.    

The decline of civic participation is not just a tea party talking point.  To the contrary, much of the scholarship about the decline comes from figures on the left who worried in recent decades that our democratic traditions were in peril.  Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, for example, is a self-declared “progressive” and a major proponent of the Obama administration’s health care legislation.  But she is also the author of an important historical study, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (2003) that tracks the radical decline of voluntary associations, fraternal groups, mutual-aid societies, and the like, many of which combined neighborly face-to-face meetings with connection to a national body that offered a broader horizon.  These groups were displaced, starting in the 1960s, by professionally-run lobbies, mass “membership” organizations that are really just well-marketed service providers, and mere mailing lists.   Back in 2003, Professor Skocpol praised the idea of bringing citizen participation back to American politics.   She has her wish—though perhaps not in the form she expected. 

Prior to 2009, the same people now active in the tea parties, were like most Americans, content to let government run on "automatic pilot."  As a professor of political science and public administration, I was often startled when businessmen told me without embarrassment, that to them government was irrelevant.  That seems to have changed.  Interestingly, tea parties are igniting a new interest in the formerly complacent, in studying the Constitution, American History and the issues of the day. This is the potential point of convergence with the National Association of Scholars, which has made constitutional and historical literacy one of its main goals over the last quarter century.  Tea Party activists and the NAS members may have important differences about some aspects of education, but they do agree on the need for Americans to understand their own history as well as the principles on which both political and genuine academic freedom rest.


From its inception, the Tea Party Movement has been characterized by compelling elected officials to listen to "we the people" and “follow our laws and constitutions.” It is composed of those who believe in self-government and the rule by law, and it opposes those who favor government by out of touch political elites and their hired experts. A case in point was the health care debate.  Many of the people I met at the town halls and rallies, where Congressman Inglis tried to convince his constituents that they were being lied to by Sarah Palin and Glen Beck, were uninsured.  But they believed their ability to get medical care, if needed, was greater in a free market where they would have to pay for services than if the government gave it to them for “free.”

No matter what the pundits say, this movement is not an ordinary populist movement, seeking to overthrow, imprison, and kill the old regime, and then redistribute its wealth.  Rather it is in the tradition of the American Revolution. That is, tea partiers aren’t fighting for the wealth of oligarchs but for restraining governmental power.  In the true spirit of ‘76, it is fighting to keep a nation where each person has the right to pursue happiness as he or she sees fit, where there is a much brighter line between the state and civil society. 

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were elected from their respective states and instructed by their state assemblies. Once the war was over, new representatives were given the task of reforming the Articles of Confederation to provide for the physical and financial security of the new nation. The Founders set about to craft a Constitution consistent with self-government, private property, minimal regulation, and ordered liberty. There are always some who will try to profit from wars, but after the Revolution, laws were passed to prevent those who wanted to exact revenge on their Tory neighbors from doing so. The Founders knew the importance of unity and led with good examples of graciousness in victory.  

Today, too many political party leaders have moved away from the people toward the "socially acceptable” positions of the Ruling Class.  Have any political leaders, Republican or Democrat, rebuked former Senator Trent Lott for suggesting the need to co-opt any tea party-supported representatives who make it to Congress?  Or Senator Lindsey Graham for saying the movement is disorganized and unsustainable?  If Republican leaders believe their own platforms, they will celebrate the Tea Party Movement.  But the movement could provide at least short term fodder for conservative Democrats as well.  There is no love lost on Republicans among serious tea partiers.  If anything, my years of service to the Republican Party counted against me when I ran for office. Conservatives have been betrayed too many times by both political parties. Case in point: when asked why he ran anti-abortion ads for Bill Clinton on Christian radio stations during the 1992 campaign, when he knew Clinton supported abortion rights, James Carville quipped that he was just using a little “Boob Bait for the Bubbas.”  During the campaign there was not a word of protest about Clinton’s duplicitous campaign strategy by Democrat leaders.

Nor are Republican candidates and office holders held to any kind of standards by Republican leaders. Politicians are loyal to each other and to Party leaders personally, but not to the Party platform. As Trey Gowdy, who beat Congressman Inglis in the Republican Primary, put it, expecting candidates to support the Party platform if they want to run under the Party label is “sheer lunacy.” Too many Party leaders just want to get their team elected—what the members of the team stand for matters little.  

The great thing about the Tea Party Movement is the hope it fosters for reform of the neo-statist GOP and the old, statist Democrat Party. Why should the Democrat Party make abortion or support of the public school establishment (an American institution most in need of reform) a litmus test?  For that matter, why should a Party called "Democrat" be in the control of a Ruling Class? In short, neither Party owns the tea parties.

It is heartening to know that the American spirit of independence is still alive and kicking. Tocqueville warned that young countries have the spirit of their constitutions, but as they get old, they lose that spirit and their constitutions become less important. But contra-Tocqueville, there are study groups forming from sea to shining sea and the Constitution and the Declaration are making a comeback.  Those of us who have studied and taught the Constitution need to make ourselves available to tea parties and provide them the knowledge they are seeking. Indeed, they may be our country's last best hope for retaining liberty.

This new interest in our history and Founding Documents is particularly encouraging to academics who have watched academic standards disappear from our schools and colleges.  While the colleges insist that the schools are to blame, I have served on university admissions and curriculum committees and have never seen anything but efforts to accommodate whatever the schools are producing.  The argument that we can best improve the schools by keeping our standards high was always rejected as “idealistic and unrealistic in this environment.” Obviously, we have to improve that environment; doing so requires first education and then political leadership.

Tea party people want to regain the education a free people needs to be self-governing, and they have created their own “remedial education” programs. There are even vacation civics camps, similar to vacation Bible schools, where young people learn the basics of American government and history.  All of this bodes well for real education in this country and deserves encouragement and assistance from intellectuals who can help.

If the movement continues to thrive, tea parties could become one political means of transcending the short shrift given to traditional education by oligarchic and administrative elites on the one hand (whose interest is confined to training a workforce), and by the deconstructionist left on the other (who use education to inculcate opinions hostile to America’s achievements and to weaken character through a therapeutic obsession with diversity and multiculturalism). 

No conservative really wants a new party.  Conservatives like to conserve what they have, even if it isn’t perfect. The Tea Party Movement would much prefer to work within the system than to hive off as a new third party.  Democrats and Republicans, if they are wise, will realize that movement is a necessary corrective.  America is not suited to be governed in perpetuity by a “ruling party” or a ruling party ethos.  We’re a “We the People” sort of nation, still, after all these years:  alert to those who wallow in unearned privilege and who give mere lip service to our small d and small r, democratic and republican traditions.  The Tea Party Movement is a stirring, from below, of resentments against a trans-party elite; but it is also an expression of genuine ideals.

I can’t help but think that there is a parallel here to the NAS: calling out self-satisfied leaders; calling into question their facile rationalizations; asking awkward questions; and all the while standing firm on the abiding principles. But don’t get me wrong. The NAS isn’t in the tea party.  It just has some friends there. 

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