History will likely record that the emergence of the 21st Century American tea party movement was sparked by a visceral national rejection of some of the most statist, unconstitutional, and threatening progressive policy proposals in the nation’s history. It also will likely record that, since the movement’s 2009 launch, it has succeeded on multiple levels: Engaging tens of millions of liberty-loving Americans in the American political process, defeating (or holding at bay) some of the worst policy proposals of this administration, and proving a demonstratively effective grassroots political force in elections throughout the nation.
So is the tea party succeeding? Held against even the most ambitious expectations that existed among those of us who participated in some of the first national tea party conference calls and events in early 2009, the answer is clearly yes. The movement now holds household brand recognition. It is justifiably feared and routinely (even if unjustifiably) disparaged by the Obama White House and the Washington establishment. And, as the nation inches ever closer to the 2012 national elections, it is proving the most intriguing political force in the nation. In short, the tea party movement is now the most influential and fastest-growing center-right political movement in American history, which of course is no small achievement.
Yet, despite these laudable successes, the tea party’s biggest challenges likely lie ahead of it, especially for this singular reason: History dictates that opposing an existing political ideology (as the tea party movement is doing successfully) is a vastly easier undertaking than providing a comprehensive, alternative governing policy agenda, which the movement is only now beginning to do in earnest. The development and advancement of that policy agenda, combined with continued improvements in the movement’s operational and organizational capabilities, are likely the most important next steps in the movement’s continued maturation and will be instrumental factors in the reach of the movement’s long-term success and longevity.
This coming challenge raises a simple question: Having followed the tea party movement now for two years, the nation understands what the tea party opposes. But what does the tea party movement support? The answer to this question is paramount, and likely includes the following:
First, a rigid adherence by government to the United States Constitution and our founders’ vision of a federal government limited in both size and scope. As has been proposed in the Enumerated Powers Act, first championed by Congressman John Shadegg (R-AZ) and since by others, the tea party movement believes Congress needs to begin detailing the empowering Constitutional authorities that permit the legislation that it proposes and adopts. Had the Enumerated Powers Act been in effect in 2010, it is highly likely that legislation requiring Americans to purchase health insurance (whether they want it or not) would have been immediately discarded as not meeting even a minimal threshold of Constitutional permissibility (regardless of what one thinks of the policy itself). Consistent with this agenda, the Tea Party movement also has been appropriately engaged in reigning in an imperial Supreme and federal court system that has routinely ruled in extra-Constitutional ways, undermining individual and property rights and threatening the very fabric of the nation’s rule of law.
Second, a tax system that is vastly simplified and less burdensome. While the Tea Party movement draws its name from the famous 1773 tax rebellion of American colonists against the British colonial government and the monopolistic East India Company, the acronym T.E.A, standing for Taxed Enough Already, also has appropriately been used as a motto for the movement. As the Tea Party movement has correctly observed, one of the primary roles of government is to create an economic climate that best permits the creation of jobs and prosperity for its citizens.
Achieving this requires job-creating entities, such as corporations and small businesses, to maintain a sufficient cash flow and capital reserve to afford the hiring of new workers at competitive wages. Yet, in the midst of one of the nation’s deepest recessionary economic climates with unemployment hovering near double digits, the United States continues to tax American corporations at a 40 percent rate, which is now the second highest in the world. Once the economic engine of the world, the United States has — as a direct result of its own public policies — become a less and less appealing nation for job-creating entities and millions of American jobs have been lost, transferred to other nations with less prohibitive tax and regulatory policies. Individual taxes have been equally punitive. Today, the average American family sends in excess of $20,000 in federal taxes annually to Washington, reducing their ability to meet fundamental needs and decreasing their ability to be charitable within their communities. They also continue to be burdened by a death tax, also opposed by the tea party movement, that destroys wealth and discourages investment.
The tea party movement also is vocal in its position that the U.S. tax code has become incomprehensibly complex and increasingly so with each passing year. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations and codes now contain 5.6 million words, seven times as many as the Bible. In the past decade alone, the regulations and codes have tripled in length, and it is now an uncontested fact that even the typical IRS customer service representative cannot routinely explain the code’s many complexities, which is a direct product of a government that has become too large and unruly, influenced by special interests run amok.
Third, a commitment to limiting government’s reach in the provision of goods and services. The federal government’s intrusion in assuming ownership of banks, mortgage and insurance companies, automobile companies, and other traditionally private sector industry segments threatens the very fabric of a free market economy and has been a core focus of tea party condemnation. In some respects, this reach has been facilitated by the failure of government (and federal courts) to recognize the Constitutional limitations of government, but it has also been fueled by a conscious and somewhat successful effort by this administration to undermine the core foundations of free market capitalism and expand government’s reach in becoming a provider of goods and services.
The tea party movement believes the proven inclination of the federal government to intervene in bailing out, and even assuming ownership of, private sector companies has created a dangerous economic climate that has undermined market-based and fiscally responsible decision making.
Fourth, substantial cuts in overall federal government spending. Not since World War II has federal spending and deficits, calculated as a percentage of GDP, run as high as they have under the Obama administration. As a percentage of GDP, federal spending now stands at 25 percent of total GDP. Deficits stand at 10 percent of GDP. And the federal government now routinely runs annual deficits exceeding $1 trillion (with no sign of substantial reductions in that anytime soon). This excessive federal spending hurts the American economy in numerous ways. It continues to build a culture of dependency in the nation that ultimately could ensure a vastly expanded, intrusive federal government for generations to come. It misallocates efficient resources, often through programs that do not generate wealth or prosperity and detract ever-growing numbers of Americans from the private sector at great opportunity cost. And not infrequently, these programs are wasteful, or politicized, or counterproductive, or all of these combined.
Since its formation, perhaps no issue has resonated more with the tea party movement than the fact that our federal government is simply too large, growing too fast, and threatening — by its very size alone — the vision our founding fathers articulated of a federal government limited in both size and span of functional responsibilities.
Each of these four issues is considered domestic or fiscal in nature, and the question is routinely asked whether the tea party movement has, or intends to, develop better articulated national security, foreign, and social policy proposals.
My response to this question typically has been two-fold: First, I do not believe the tea party movement is as divided on these additional issues as liberal media have sought to portray. Most tea party leaders and activists I have encountered believe that there are disturbing social trends in the nation, including the multiple problems arising from the federal government’s failure to secure its borders, the ever-alarming number of abortions (now exceeding 4,000 a day) that continue to be performed in the U.S. and the urgent need for further choice and accountability in primary education. In foreign policy and defense matters, while some tea party leaders believe the U.S. is overextended abroad, most also share Ronald Reagan’s vision that American strength, not weakness, represents the best chance for peace and freedom.
Yet, second, there also appears to be an understandable reluctance to complicate the Tea Party message by broadening the issues of its focus and potentially limiting the movement’s size and influence. For these reasons, the driving principles of adherence to the U.S. Constitution, the need for tax relief and tax code simplification, and the reigning in of a vastly bloated federal government appear to be the unifying principles that will continue to unite the influential and ever-growing tea party movement.
Michael Johns, a former White House speechwriter and Heritage Foundation policy analyst, is a national and Philadelphia-area Tea Party leader. He has written for
The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, National Review and other publications and is a frequent commentator on the nation’s Tea Party policy agenda.