James Dobson, now divorced from Focus on The Family, has endorsed a candidate. There is no a big stretch here, but it is the kind of leadership that Dobson failed to show in ’08. We have wondered if his departure from FOTF was in part motivated by the political restraints that organization forced upon him. This could get interesting . . .
The “Tea Party”
Last week, Lowell and I had a minor disagreement about the Tea Party movement. Given that there was a convention of the movement this past weekend, there has been much analysis and efforts to define it. See, the problem is it’s not well-organized; it’s a bunch of organizations with a lot of different things in mind. National Journal profiles some of the “leading” groups. The Christian Science Monitor tries to profile it and says this is how it started:
CNBC editor Rick Santelli’s on-air “rant” last February about a proposed mortgage bailout is widely considered to be the “big bang” moment for the birth of the movement.
Interesting thesis, and it probably is right for one branch of the movement, but this thing is too diverse to have a single “big bang” moment. Zogby does some numbers, and Chris Good theorizes that it will “fail” – being subsumed by the Republican party. This later is an interesting choice of words – the history of the United States is that we are a definitively two-party state, third party movements always fail in the sense that they do not last. But, if they are indeed subsumed by one of the two parties, and in that process move that party towards their ideals – can they truly be said to have “failed?” I, for one, do not think so. [Lowell slips this in: Good point!]
But let’s get the heart of the disagreement between Lowell and me: Is there a religious element to the movement? There certainly is not an overt one, but I do think there is an undercurrent. Let’s consider two pieces. One from the Financial Times, looking at Republicans and the South:
The south is the spiritual and – along with the mountain states of the west – electoral base of the Republican party. And yet, as the party struggles back into national relevance with recent gubernatorial triumphs in both New Jersey and Virginia and a genuinely shocking upset last month with the victory by Scott Brown in the race for Ted Kennedy’s former seat in Massachusetts, the south has become as much a curse as a blessing. If the “Grand Ol’ Party” wants to win nationally in 2010, it must attract voters who do not identify with southern values. And if it wants to harness, as it did in Massachusetts, the power of the anti-Washington “tea party” protests – the grassroots movement that emerged in 2009 in opposition to Obama’s tax and spending plans – it may have to distance itself from the southern establishment. The great paradox of recovery, then, is that it now seems that the fastest way for the Republican party to return to its broader base of the late 1990s and early 2000s is at the expense of its most loyal and ardent followers.
[Emphasis added.] Note the reference to “spiritual.” There are other references in the piece to the Bible Belt and its importance to Republicans. As I said before, the issue lies in the word “authentic.” The Republicans lost so broadly last time because they were no longer “authentically” conservative. Romney lost last time for similar reasons, and those concerns were given great force, as we have documented endlessly here, by the ugly “Mormons lie” meme, the roots of which lie in theology.
More importantly, this blog post contends that Sarah Palin is the only uniting figure in the entire Tea Party Movement. The heart of Palin’s appeal, for most everyone I talk to, is the “authenticity” she demonstrated in carrying her Down Syndrome son to term and raising him. They can rely on her to be a “real” Christian.
Speaking of Palin, she is leaving the door open to a run. And she does not appear to want to do so for a third party:
Asked whether she sees herself as a member of the tea party movement or a member of the Republican Party, Mrs. Palin said, “I think the two are, and should be even more so, merging.”
“Because the tea party movement is quite reflective of what the GOP, the planks in the platform, are supposed to be about — limited government and more freedom, more respect for equality. That’s what the tea party movement is about. So I think that the two are much entwined,” she said.
Actually, I’d call that hedging her bets. In many senses the Tea Party movement is her base. The other thing, aside from Trig, that gave her “authenticity” last time was how far she was from the mainstream of the party. Lowell said when this discussion started that the movement was similar to the “Perotistas” of the Bush/Clinton election – which is a good analogy. Palin is going to find herself with a problem if she actually does try to run. More in a moment – back to the movement and religion.
It is fair to say that the Tea Party movement as a whole is not going to dip into the religious wars we saw last time. You are not going to see leading religious figures arguing about genuine faith in the movement, at least not until the movements death throes. But there is little doubt in my mind that religious impulses lie in the emotional mix of a large section of the Tea Party people.
Someone could come along and play on that impulse, and religion could come front-and-center again.
The future for the movement is, from my perspective fractured. It’s single defining characteristic is dissatisfaction and such people can only ever agree to disagree, thus they will never be able to organize sufficiently to stand alone. Those interested in changing things will indeed be “subsumed” into the GOP because that is how they will get things done. Those interested solely in being dissatisfied will begin to grow dissatisfied with each other and they will fracture into a million pieces. Some of those pieces will be overtly religious and they could get really ugly in 2012. But it will be rhetorical ugliness only, their very nature will render them ineffective.
This is where Palin’s problems will arise, if she decides to run. The fractures will be such that she will not have enough support in the Republican party to prevail in the primaries, and there will not be enough of a party outside of it to succeed in the general. From our perspective, the question is which direction will the religiously motivated amongst the movement go? My guess is the third party route. Wonder if the Huckster will try and get in front of that parade?
But then political predictions are worse than Super Bowl picks, so take it for what its worth.
Lowell adds . . .
I still see the tea partiers as mostly libertarian in outlook. Their primary message is about economic liberty. A quick visit to the Tea Party Nation web site seems to confirm my sense of them. The links there to “strategic partner” sites includes only a couple of faith-based organizations.
Still, I think John is right that most religious conservatives tend to identify with tea partiers. There’s little doubt that religious folk who are also politically conservative are generally liberty-oriented as well, even if the liberty they care about relates to government staying out of religion or out of parents’ ability to raise their families in accordance with their beliefs. All in I think the tea party movement is going to strengthen the GOP, not weaken it (assuming the organized GOP and indvidual Republican politicians are not stupid in their dealings with the movement).
As John suggests, one positive result from the tea partiers’ infusion of vigor and fire into the Republicans will be the balancing of the “Religious Right’s” influence. Putting it another way, the party does not do well when one of the three legs of the GOP “stool” (family values, economic liberty/small government, and strong foreign policy) is longer than the other two. I think we had that problem with the family values leg in 2006 and 2008. In 2009-10, we saw the economic liberty forces come roaring back, and as a result we got two Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia and a Republican senator in the seat Ted Kennedy held.
Finally, in relation to this blog’s mission, I think religious concerns will fall behind, or at least even with, economic liberty in 2010 and 2012. That’s a good thing. If we’ve learned anything in 222 years under the Constitution, the country does better when the “public religion” Lincoln talked about is at the forefront of our politics, rather than more sectarian views. Here’s an interesting First Things summary of Lincoln’s views and their impact:
It is to Lincoln that we owe our modern–day Thanksgiving, and the fact that it is celebrated by Americans of every religion and no religion also bears traces of Lincoln’s attitude. Owing, perhaps, to his own theological skepticism, he steered clear of sectarian squabbles, refused to countenance nativist anti–Catholicism, and changed “Christian” to “religious” in the chaplaincy program to accommodate Jewish chaplains.
In Lincoln’s mind, public religion and nationalism were bound up together. From his “Young Man’s Lyceum Address” in 1838 . . . to his presidential speeches, Lincoln made clear that he wanted national unity “under God” and reverence for law as “the political religion of the nation.” Whatever else this mix of sanctity and politics produced, for generations after his death it had the effect of uniting a diverse people in the belief that they were all, somehow, participating in a great eschatological drama.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.