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The Tea Party Movement Died With a Whimper
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The Tea Party Movement Died With a Whimper

It turns out many who rode the wave of principled libertarianism were neither.

A supporter of the Tea Party movement holds a sign outside the U.S. Capitol on March 21, 2010. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

With the news that libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks is going the way of Blockbuster, the Tea Party era is officially over. Of course, it’s been functionally dead—or mostly dead—for a while. It’s been a while since anyone in national Republican politics of any note talked like a Tea Partier, never mind associated themselves with the cause. I’m sure there are some who’ve gone to ground, like old-style Communists keeping their heads down in various backwaters, hoping no one recognizes them.

For a sense of how the Tea Parties were like St. Elmo’s Fire—suddenly lighting up the firmament and burning out just as quickly—consider that in 2010 The New York Times Magazine introduced Marco Rubio to the country with a cover story titled, “The First Senator from the Tea Party?”

The question mark referred to whether or not Rubio would successfully defeat Charlie Crist in the primary to become a senator—not whether he was a Tea Party guy. Funnily enough, that deserved a question mark, too. Or at least an expiration date. Today, Rubio is a devout industrial planner—but only when “done right.”

Indeed, the Times profile, written by Mark Leibovich, is a fascinating historical snapshot. “If there is a face for the future of the Republican Party, it is Marco Rubio,” Mike Huckabee told Leibovich. “He is our Barack Obama but with substance.” Today Huckabee talks about anything that smacks of the Tea Party-style libertarian principles like they’re nothing a course of penicillin can’t clear-up. 

There were other Tea Party-fueled victories that year. Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, and Mike Lee, rode that wave, as did many of the GOP candidates who gave Barack Obama a “shellacking” in the midterms and helped Republicans pick up 63 seats in the House. For the next couple of election cycles, aligning oneself with the Tea Parties was a surefire path to Republican success. 

I think Dan McLaughlin gets it basically right in his modest obituary for the Tea Party movement, though I think you could just as easily argue that the movement died when the Tea Party Caucus in the House effectively dissolved in 2016 and more or less absorbed by the House Freedom Caucus. With the rise of Donald Trump, the House Freedom Caucus basically became the House Trump Caucus. Leaders of the initial Tea Party Caucus—the brainchild of Rand Paul—included Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Louie Gohmert, Steve King, as well as a few normal people. 

Now I should say (again) that the Tea Parties were the one exception to my longstanding opposition to populism. I spoke at Tea Party rallies, and for the most part, I liked what I saw; even most of the cranks and oddballs were charming. (I remember at one Tea-Partyish event, an Eastern European fellow pulled me aside, with a stack of books under his arm, to make the case for the restoration of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania.) As I used to joke at the time, I thought that the Tea Parties might actually constitute the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy that the libertarians would rise up, seize power, and leave everybody alone. 

It’s difficult to exaggerate how excited some folks were back then. Glenn Reynolds—of Instapundit fame—saw it as the fulfillment of his own prophecy: that an “Army of Davids” would rise up and restore common sense, good government, fiscal rectitude, and all good things. The new “libertarian populism” was hotly debated, celebrated, and denounced. 

Jonathan Rauch wrote a great piece for National Journal in 2010 marveling at how the Tea Parties were perhaps the first modern “networked,” “crowd-sourced,” or “open-sourced” movement. “Hierarchies are at a loss to defeat networks,” Rauch wrote. “Open systems have no leader or headquarters; their units are self-funding, and their members often work for free (think Wikipedia). Even in principle, you can’t count or compartmentalize the participants, because they come and go as they please—but counting them is unnecessary, because they can communicate directly with each other. Knowledge and power are distributed throughout the system.”

“As a result,” Rauch continued, “the network is impervious to decapitation. ‘If you thump it on the head, it survives.’ No foolish or self-serving boss can wreck it, because it has no boss. Fragmentation, the bane of traditional organizations, actually makes the network stronger. It is like a starfish: Cut off an arm, and it grows (in some species) into a new starfish. Result: two starfish, where before there was just one.”

Alas, Jonathan was wrong. So was Glenn. And so was I.

The media and Democrats figured out how to convince people that the Tea Parties were actually racist and fascist and all that. I think that helped radicalize a lot of Tea Partiers, causing them to embrace things like nationalism and statist power politics. I’m here to write about a different cautionary tale, but I should at least acknowledge another. The elite media’s moral panic over the Tea Parties succeeded in helping to destroy the movement, but what replaced it was far worse. I’ve lost count of the progressives who simultaneously tell me they’re nostalgic for the libertarianism of the pre-Trump right and rejoice in calling conservatives hypocrites for abandoning it. Maybe if they responded in good faith at the time, it would have endured. 

Then again, maybe not. Back to my point. 

First of all, as Tim Carney gently intimates, the key to libertarian populism wasn’t actually the libertarianism, but the populism. And populism is a bit like rushing water: It looks libertarian when it goes in a libertarian direction, but when it hits an obstacle, it will veer in the direction of least resistance. Or it will just pool up and eventually evaporate, dissipate, or get sucked up by creatures looking to wet their beaks.

Speaking of such creatures, Dick Morris saw the payday early. But many others followed him. 

One of the problems with political passion—particularly novel passion detached from institutions with the knowledge and experience to channel it constructively—is that it attracts opportunists and grifters. It’s always easier to separate people from their money when they are very excited and not thinking clearly. 

As Jim Geraghty chronicled in 2019, the Tea Party quickly became a textbook illustration of Eric Hoffer’s observation that, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” 

“Back in 2014,” Geraghty wrote, “Politico researched 33 political action committees that claimed to be affiliated with the Tea Party and courted small donors with email and direct-mail appeals and found that they ‘raised $43 million—74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.’” The kind of self-dealing cronyism the Tea Parties were inspired to fight became the defining feature of the Tea Parties.

A bit further on, Jim added:

Back in 2016, campaign finance lawyer Paul H. Jossey detailed how some of the PACs operated and lamented, “The Tea Party movement is pretty much dead now, but it didn’t die a natural death. It was murdered—and it was an inside job. In a half decade, the spontaneous uprising that shook official Washington degenerated into a form of pyramid scheme that transferred tens of millions of dollars from rural, poorer Southerners and Midwesterners to bicoastal political operatives.”

One of the amazing things about the MAGA “movement” is it kind of got Hoffer’s sequence backward. It more or less started as a racket, but that hasn’t stopped various people from trying to turn it into a movement—like pimps and madams swirling around an old prostitute with make-up, nice clothes, and flattering lighting to fool the johns. That’s why FreedomWorks closed shop: MAGA is better at monetizing the johns because it bypasses the formalities and etiquette of the better brothels.

I want to be clear: Although I didn’t always agree with FreedomWorks, I’m not accusing the group of corruption or likening it to a brothel. It actually tried to stick to a coherent principled agenda, and that’s what killed it. Or rather, that’s what drove FreedomWorks to suicide. Because that’s not what the customers wanted. “Now I think donors are saying, ‘What are you doing for Trump today?’” Paul Beckner, a member of FreedomWorks’ board, told Politico. “And we’re not for or against Trump. We’re for Trump if he’s doing what we agree with, and we’re against him if he’s not. And so I think we’ve seen an erosion of conservative donors.” FreedomWorks didn’t die from a lack of supply of coherent principles but from a lack of demand for them. 

Of Courage and Cowardice

Okay, now that I’ve played this fairly straight, let me put on my G-File hat and put this in some broader context.

I recently had the (great) historian Robert Kagan on The Remnant to discuss his new book, Rebellion: How Anti-Liberalism is Tearing America Apart—Again. I won’t reprise my areas of substantial disagreement (or agreement) in full here, but he makes one claim that seems relevant. He thinks “wokeness” is the natural unfolding of the liberalism inherent in our founding ideals. Here’s how he puts it in the book:

Today, the main target of antiliberal conservatism is “wokeness.” But what is “wokeness”? To some extent, it is the inevitable by-product of the liberal system the founders created. When groups that have been struggling for recognition of their fundamental natural rights finally succeed, they invariably seek more than just acknowledgment of those rights. They seek the respect and dignity that come with being fully equal members of society, no more or less privileged than those who used to oppress and look down on them and diminish them with disparaging language and stereotypes.

I think he has a point about some things that get called “wokeness” or “political correctness.” Some changes in language and customs are simply an advancement in good manners and liberal principles of equality. Using new terms that show respect and acceptance is consistent with the desirable expansion of what you might call the liberal spirit. In the 1960s, for instance, black people decided that they didn’t want to be called “Negroes”—and decent white people came to accept that, regardless of their ideological orientation. I have no objection to that, and I don’t know—and have never known—any normal people who would call Clarence Thomas or Tom Sowell a “Negro.”

Where Kagan goes wrong is in thinking that wokeness is only an extension of that kind of thing. Wokeness-in-power is fundamentally anti-liberal, seeking to use not just language, but institutional power and resources, to enforce groupthink. Heck, groupthink is the ideal—the Mandarins of Wokeness will settle for compliance. Requiring mandatory DEI statements for job applicants is not liberal in any way, as schools are finally starting to realize. Ibram Kendi’s anti-racism is a bullying tactic to force acquiescence to illiberal policy preferences. Selectively enforcing free speech rules to privilege antisemites while silencing other groups is not liberal.

In fact, the intellectuals behind wokeness, critical theory, and intersectionality are open and honest about their opposition to liberalism. They write books and papers attacking liberalism as a system of white privilege or supremacy. Colorblindness—a key concept for liberal equality—is deemed a tool of oppression. And of course, liberal—or “neoliberal”—economics is rejected as systematized greed and tyranny

The government using its power to impose “woke” policies—particularly through executive orders, bureaucratic mandates, or even judicial diktats—is also not liberal, or it’s certainly not libertarian, if that makes it easier to grasp the point. (To take one example from the headlines, New York just announced $2.3 billion in contracts to improve JFK airport. The hitch: white-owned businesses are barred from bidding on any of the projects).

So what does this have to do with the end of FreedomWorks? The libertarian populism of the Tea Party era died because the animating passion wasn’t really libertarianism in the first place. Tim Carney beat me to the punch by quoting Rep. Thomas Massie’s Tea Party replacement theory: “All this time,” Massie explained in 2017, “I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching, I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron [Paul] and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a b—h in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class.”

If all those supposedly principled libertarians were actually principled libertarians, they would not have surrendered to Trumpism, in the same way that all those supposed classical liberals committed to the liberal arts, of all things, would not have handed the keys to their temples to the forces of illiberalism.

Indeed, to take Kagan’s claim seriously, the left’s long march through institutions was a fulfillment of liberal principles and the democratic process. It wasn’t. It was, on campus after campus, newsroom after newsroom, foundation after foundation, a systemic rout of the forces of liberalism by an illiberal insurgency. As a reader recently said to me, “I think that the illiberal right’s fallacy is their claim that liberalism failed to defend itself, as if ideas were sentient beings capable of action.” I think this is exactly right. Liberal ideals—free speech, free exchange, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, limited government, etc.—cannot defend themselves. People—particularly people in power—who believe in them can. When those people refuse to fight for those ideals, they are left defenseless.

Once abandoned, these ideas aren’t really defeated—defeat suggests resistance, after all—they are discarded like idols to some forgotten or defunct deity. As I put it in the last lines of Suicide of the West, “Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore.”

I’ve long quoted T.S. Eliot’s famous line about there being “no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.” What I always took from this is that causes endure so long as people continue to believe in the cause and are willing to fight for it. This is why C.S. Lewis (echoing Cicero) was right when he said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” It’s easy to be for libertarianism or liberalism—or any other ism—when it makes you popular or rich or gets you elected. The test is when it makes you none of those things.

What we’ve learned in recent years is that that is a lot to ask of a lot of people. And to borrow another line from Eliot, that is why the Tea Parties died not with a bang, but a whimper. 

Canine Update: After enduring the outrage of interminable abandonment with multiple caretakers for about 48 hours while the Fair Jessica and I went off to NYC to celebrate her birthday, the girls are now fine. I came home a day earlier than the missus, and I tried to atone by taking them on a series of adventures. Bunnies were chased, balls fetched, Very Important Things sniffed and duly marked. When TFJ returned, they were happy. But several people asked why she was not chastised with an “aroo.” I have no answer to that; I’ve learned not to question the deeper mysteries of dingo-ness. Others asked whether Zoë heard TFJ arrive or whether a mere whisper from me set her off. The answer is the latter. If either of us whispers “Who is it?” Zoë and (often) Pippa will race to the door either to greet a missing human or to ward off crows, dogs, bears, gnus, ninjas, whatever. There’s really not much more to report. Yes, I appeased Chester in my wife’s absence. Yes, Zoë is a good girl who, despite not liking company in the front seat, is no longer the sort of beast that punishes other dogs for it (at least not ones in her extended pack). So there’s no need for Kristi Noem to shoot her. And Gracie remains the Queen.

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.