These were names who were a big deal in the late ’70s and early ’80s as a new political movement rose up to challenge the Establishment in Washington and in the Republican Party across the country. They were socially conservative Christians and they were determined to change politics forever.
I still have a copy of Richard Viguerie’s 1981 book, “The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead.” (He was a brilliant pioneer of conservative direct mail fundraising.) I was a conservative Republican at the time and I was also a theologically conservative Christian, so it seemed natural to me that the two would come together in a powerful way and change politics.
I guess you could say that I was young and idealistic enough to be a True Believer.
I was only on the periphery of this movement, but I remember others who were convinced we were going to change the country in a positive way. We were passionately organizing and we were driven from the grass roots. We were disgusted with the cynical “politics as usual” that we got from government and even from our own Republican Party. There were so many of us involved that we were sure we were going to end the ability of the Establishment to continue running things as its members always had.
So what happened?
Candidates of the Republican Party learned to speak the language of the Religious Right. Anyone who wanted the GOP nomination for president had to go through the gatekeepers of the New Right. Those who wanted to be elected to Congress or to local offices in conservative states had to say the right things and be approved by the standards of this bloc.
But as these candidates got elected and joined government, a funny thing happened. Nothing really changed.
I changed over the years. By the late ’80s, I had come to realize why it was wrong for me to try to force my personal views on others through the political process. I’ve described my personal change before.
Today, there’s a new group of conservative political revolutionaries who are trying to change the Establishment. They’re a loosely affiliated bunch of groups and individuals who call themselves the Tea Party. Some of them have minarchist libertarian roots. Some of them might have been comfortable with the New Right in the ’80s. Some of them don’t have much in the way of philosophical roots, but just want lower taxes and a smaller government. A few of them are the racist bigots who some people like to pretend they all are, but there are much fewer of them than progressives and some in the media like to believe.
The Tea Party folks are certain they’re going to change the world. Anyone who wants the GOP nomination for president has to go through the gatekeepers of the Tea Party. Those who want to be elected to Congress or to local offices in conservative states have to say the right things and be approved by the standards of Tea Party supporters.
I have to laugh. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
I saw a post on Facebook Tuesday night talking about how “the Establishment” is afraid of the Tea Party, because the Tea Party is going to stop them from continuing business as usual. The True Believers are convinced that the Tea Party is going to change everything.
I generally sympathize with the goals of the Tea Party groups. I’d like to shrink government. I’d like to start with reducing taxes and stopping new ones. The problem is that they’re trying to reform something that’s fundamentally flawed and immoral. To get rid of the evil, you have to strike at the root — which is coercive government. These folks want to make friends with coercive government. They think they can tame it and make it serve their purposes.
They’re essentially trying the same strategy that failed so badly for the New Right and for every group that has wanted to tame the beast.
The Tea Party people consider themselves pragmatists. They see that government exists and it seems to make sense that “someone has to be in charge,” so they’re trying to reform things. They just want the results they want, without paying attention to the core moral principles that underlie coercive government.
Consequentialists of every stripe are more similar than they realize. Consequentialists who call themselves progressives have a vision of what society should look like, so they want to use immoral coercive force to create that — despite the people who are hurt or enslaved by the process. Consequentialists who call themselves conservative have a different vision of what society should look like, but they’re also willing to use immoral coercive force to create what they want. Both groups are willing to sacrifice principles and ignore individual freedom — in the name of achieving the end results they want.
You can seek to force the consequences you want by dictating to people how they must live or you can acknowledge the principle that people are free and are morally responsible for their own decisions. You can focus on principles or you can focus on forcing consequences. You can’t have it both ways.
The Tea Party’s True Believers are absolutely convinced that they’re somehow different. They believe that they’re going to change government and politics. They believe that they’re going to take power away from the Establishment that controls the machinery of the coercive state. They’re absolutely sure that they can use politics to get what they want.
The New Right conservatives thought the same things. Their movement looked impressive, but it was absorbed into the Republican Party and became part of the Establishment.
Do you honestly think things are going to be different for the Tea Party?