It’s another revolutionary season in American politics, with voters preparing to do everything they can within the structure of the law to throw out the bad guys and the bad system they represent. The focus is on this amorphous thing called the Tea Party, which embodies a huge range of political impulses from libertarian to authoritarian, united under the common belief that everything is going wrong in Washington, with a common goal of upending the status quo.
Candidates that the Republican Party doesn’t like are making big inroads into the party structure and, quite possibly, the election itself. That is fun to watch. The wind at their backs is the spectacular — but wholly predictable — failure of the Obama administration’s economic witchcraft. Trillions and trillions created and spent and yet the suffering endures.
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The health-care bill is also a source of American public anger. People are not deceived into believing that whatever reforms we are getting are going to fix the problems of the current system; they will make them worse. As it is, the freedom remaining in the system is the only reason that the system serves us at all. Take that away, and you take away a lifeline.
The revolt, then, is in high gear. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. The governed have long been very unhappy about the government, and they periodically wake up and seek to change it. It’s been some 16 years since the last go-round of such revolutionary sentiment. It is arguably stronger today than it was back in 1994.
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The good aspects of this have nothing to do with political outcomes, despite what people believe. The political environment focuses the mind on important issues like freedom, economics, culture, power and its uses, and the role of the state. As they debate with their neighbors, follow election coverage, listen to the candidates, and watch the process, people learn and study and, most importantly, think and rethink.
If you begin with a skeptical attitude toward the government, watching and thinking can lead to a radicalization and ultimate embrace of a consistent opposition to government involvement. This is why election season always ends up creating a huge flood of new libertarians who buy books, feel the inspiration to get active (perhaps for the first time), and dedicate themselves to reducing the power of the state in whatever way they can.
If American politics can be said to contribute anything to American culture, it is this educational aspect that stands out. The elections focus the mind and lead people to a new consciousness. Ideally, that consciousness would dawn without politicians and elections and all the apparatus of the season. And yet people are busy in normal times, dealing with regular life; it is the very urgency of the election that gives rise to the concern in the first place.
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You might as well know right now, however, that the Tea Party, no matter how successful it is at the polls in November, will certainly betray the party of liberty. There are several reasons for this, but the fundamental one is intellectual. The Tea Party does not have a coherent view of liberty. Its activists tend to be good on specific economic issues like taxes, spending, stimulus, and health care. They worry about government intervention in these areas and can talk a good game.
But just as with old-time conservatives, there are many issues on which the Tea Party tends toward inconsistency. The military and the issue of war is a major one. Many have bought into the line that the greatest threat this country faces domestically is the influx of adherents of Islam; in international politics, they tend to favor belligerence toward any regime that is not a captive of U.S. political control.
On immigration, the Tea Party ethos favors national IDs and draconian impositions on businesses rather than market solutions like cutting welfare. On social and cultural issues, they can be as confused as the Christian right, believing that it is the job of government to right all wrongs and punish sin.
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This doesn’t describe them all. A poll taken last spring divides the activists into two camps: Palin and Paul. Both groups are mad as heck at the mainstream Republican party, but only the Paul camp has broadened that anger to the government generally.
Such are the philosophical problems. Just as telling are the structural problems in politics that lead all political candidates toward the center as a matter of maximizing votes. It’s always the same. They count on their base to show up and vote for them, however reluctantly. It’s the voters in the middle who get their attention. This is why all candidates tend to water down their positions after the primaries, that, and to get funding from the corporatists allied with both parties.
The larger problem occurs once they take office. Here is where the serious problems begin. They are leaned on by their new colleagues, the party elites, related financial interests, the press, and the entire system of which they are now part. Are they going to make themselves enemies of that system, or are they going to work within the system in order to achieve reform, and not just for one term but more terms down the line? Doing a good job means being part of the structure; doing a bad job means being an enemy of the very system that they now serve.
Which choice do they make? The same choice that everyone else in office makes (Ron Paul being the lone exception in all of human history). It is for this reason that newly seated “revolutionary” politicians will betray those who put them in power. It happens like clockwork, same as day turns to night.
Some good can still come out of the results, if only because former ideologues can serve as some resistance to really bad policy. The new Congress that was seated after the 1994 election certainly curbed the ambitions of the Clinton administration for a time. But avoiding greater evil is not the same as doing good. We can state with confidence, all else being equal, that even the best electoral outcome will not lead to actual cuts in the power of government over our lives.
That doesn’t mean that all is for naught. What will change the prospects for freedom in this country is a growing and society-wide awareness of the issue of freedom and the role of the state in wrecking that freedom, and the civilization to which it gives rise.