Among the Huffington Post crowd - a congregation too populated with the self-satisfied, inaccurately self-identified as centrist - "Tea Party" is an epithet wielded much as deconstructionist professors wield their lecterns at Oberlin and Bard: to shame questioners of their orthodoxy in a manner designed to shut them up for four years.
The irony is that, just as literary deconstructionism directs its skepticism toward the supposed ideological biases of classical authors, the Tea Party movement dared to challenge the systemic biases that have steadily inflated the size of government. These include the political rent-seeking tendencies of large anythings: corporations, banks, unions and almost any other self-conscious economic constituency.
Liberals decried the Tea Party as anti-intellectual and anti-progress, when in fact - on its best days at least - it was merely anti-big, questioning the largeness, and not necessarily the humanitarian largesse, of government.
Baby boomers might remember one of the most thought-provoking treatises ever written about size: E. F. Schumacher's appropriately compact Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. In it, Schumacher essentially extols the virtues of a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon once called the author's home country of Britain. "In small-scale enterprise, private ownership is natural, fruitful, and just," argued the Oxford don. Schumacher wrote partly in reaction to the 1970's nationalization of Britain's major industries, which he worried could become even worse than the corporate concentration of economic power he despised.
In America, the Tea Party was, at its founding, a movement of shopkeepers initially galvanized by the Obama administration's health care, tax and regulatory heavy-handedness toward small businesses. Like their namesake event centuries ago, its initial members rebelled against excessive interference with small-time commerce by a seemingly deaf, distant and demanding national government.
How dare they.
Just as Democrats reserve their sharpest blades for female and minority Republicans, liberals attacked the Tea Party with special vitriol because its grass-roots nature undercut their delusion that the little guy always supports more and more government. They pasted it with all kinds of straw men to better ground their attacks - "anarchist[s] too lazy or too scared to move to Somalia," declared one Democratic legislator - sinking eventually to declaiming the whiteness and maleness of these particular little guys.
The assault was both inaccurate and unfair. It is easily demonstrated that Tea Partiers wanted limited government, not no government. In fact, even after being swamped by opportunistic Republicans, the movement's various blogs continued to press for little more than aligning the growth of government to that of population and inflation, a future liberal Democrats equated with stone tools and mud huts.
Unfortunately, the movement was too disorganized to keep social conservatives at a safe distance. As a result, the revival a uniquely American populism that once united small farmers with Main Street shopkeepers - both sharing antipathy toward corporate and government bigness - was lost. By 2012, the Tea Party's image had been reshaped by the abuse of both its detractors and come-lately supporters, as well as by mortifying avatars like Christine O'Donnell, Richard Mourdock and Michele Bachmann. Now, left-leaning pundits barely distinguish it from the funeral protestors of Westboro Baptist Church.
This was a missed opportunity for America because the movement could have been, should have been, the catalyst for a positive discussion about the proper size, distance and reach of government in people's personal and economic lives, perhaps starting with the small space shared by liberal skeptics of big banks and government surveillance, and libertarian skeptics of global interventionism, government-defined marriage and communitarian nosiness.
The Tea Party could also have been home to the kind of constructive patriotism first demonstrated by James Madison, John Adams and John Jay. It could have been a champion of traditional populism, asking how we keep government small enough and close enough to fulfill the dual promises of liberty and democracy, yet strong enough to counterbalance the aggregating forces of contemporary nationalism and capitalism.
At the very least, it might have unified a wide range of Democrats and Republicans capable of thinking beyond federal budget math and toward a subtle and distinctly American rebalancing of community and personal space. Instead, it became a hopeless mess.
Steve Steckler is chairman of Infrastructure Management Group (IMG), a US-based finance and management company specializing in the commercialization of public-use infrastructure around the world. Through its diversified advisory, investment, management and technology interests, IMG helps change the way America and other nations finance and manage their roads, railways, airports, utilities and public services.
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