Conservatives like to say that they are conservatives first and Republicans second. While noble, such a sentiment is nave at best and dangerous at worst for those who seek to reinvigorate the Republican Party with fresh ideas and an intellectual creed that is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." But conservative Americans are increasingly feeling that the best way to vent their frustration with the government is to attack any politician in any party that disagrees with their views.
Obviously, such conservatives are well within their rights to do this. However, in doing so they are jeopardizing the future of the intellectual tradition upon which conservatism relies. The time has come for Republican leaders to demonstrate the political skill and intellectual courage to dissuade conservatives from embracing dangerous, unstable radicals who threaten to undermine both the Republican Party and the country. I'm referring to, of course, the Tea Party movement.
Republicans have some reasons to like the Tea Party movement. Its activism and intensity has drawn attention to citizen outrage against the Obama agenda and has done substantial damage to the Democratic Party's reputation. The Tea Party's small government rhetoric also fits nicely with longstanding Republican principals. The political and ideological benefits end there though.
The Tea Party is a highly volatile group of disenfranchised and frankly dangerous voters who find themselves angry at anything and everything that moves. They advocate a false and radical form of populism that undermines American political and financial institutions. They have encouraged Republicans to further alienate moderates who can provide valuable policy ideas. They purport to represent ordinary Americans, yet their hostility indicates a profoundly deranged worldview that estranges ordinary Americans. To think that Republicans are looking towards these very people for ideological inspiration and catering to their political interests is a clear indicator of how far Republicans must go before taking control of government.
Barack Obama and his administration's policy may have been the catalyst for the Tea Party movement, but what has sustained it is a lack of intellectualism among Republicans. What made Reagan such a powerful leader was that he understood the principals behind great conservative thinkers like Buckley and Hayek and found ways to make their ideas palatable to the masses. In essence, Reagan informed the conservative movement and funneled its activism in a way that was beneficial for his party and the country.
Today, Republican leaders increasingly take their marching orders from the Tea Party and its unclear and fragmented political ideology. In the process, Republicans have abandoned their ideological foundation and replaced conservative intellectual thought with the shallow rants of radio talk show hosts. Politico, a bipartisan political news and analysis website, recently ran a story detailing the growing split among members of the Tea Party movement. Who are the ideological leaders of this movement? Who does the Tea Party want to see in the White House? Who does the Tea Party feel best represents their values? Sarah Palin and Ron Paul, of course. The day the Republican Party is led by such radical and unstable so-called leaders is the day Democrats can start celebrating another 40 years of congressional control.
No doubt it is puzzling for some that anyone could suggest that the Tea Party might cost Republicans political support. As mentioned, they have attracted considerable media attention that has tarnished Obama's image—they have essentially stolen his halo. But they insist on subjecting Republicans to ideology tests before considering the possibility of supporting the party. Moderate GOP candidates are therefore slandered, politicians like Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are attacked and independent voters become wary of supporting Republican views. Democrats, meanwhile, with the guidance of strong intellectual liberals like Barack Obama are given an opening to establish themselves as fair-minded.
To make it worse, Democrats are able to establish the political narrative that Republicans are cold-hearted extremists and liberals become the only reasonable alternative. Obama's rhetoric of change and hope was successful not just because he was a great speaker and the political timing was right; he resonated with voters because he communicated a sense of conviction and level-headedness. By getting in bed with the Tea Party, Republicans also make themselves susceptible to the popularity of a movement that has little self-control and a demonstrated willingness to scream and threaten. Republicans, therefore, become guilty by association.
None of this means that Republicans should become apologetic about their values and only nominate candidates who vote with Democrats as often as they do Republicans. To be a Republican means standing for certain principals and ideals: It means asserting American foreign policy interests abroad while defending the belief in small government at home. Such principles are rooted in a profound understanding of conservatism that has stood the test of time largely because these principles are the products of great conservative thinkers.
Such thought is conspicuously absent among members of the Tea Party who hide behind Gadsen flags and anti-Obama rants to justify their actions. As Americans, members of the Tea Party are allowed to act in such a way. But Republicans cannot allow themselves to become an empty ideological shell void of concrete principles and ideas. If Republicans seek to stand up and fight the Obama agenda, they must do so knowing what they are fighting for and why they are fighting. Conservative values mean something and they cannot and should not be mutilated by an unhinged Tea Party.
One should also not assume that infecting the Republican Party is the goal of Tea Party members. In all honesty, they really are simply acting in a way they believe is rational. That Republicans are pandering to them is the fault of Republicans. What Republicans must instead do is use this summer to reflect on core conservative principles and find ways to make those principles applicable to real-life policy issues. It is not that conservatism cannot address such issues—it absolutely can. But Republicans must first return to the intellectual roots of conservatism and build from there.
Then and only then will they begin to enjoy authentic voter support rather then merely benefiting from discontent with Democrats. What the Tea Party does next is unpredictable, but its influence will be reduced so that a truly great battle of ideas can be held this November between liberals and genuine conservatives. It's all well and good to say that you put conservatism before party affiliation, but being a good conservative compels individuals to protect their philosophy from the unhinged and promote its advancement via a strong and vibrant Republican Party.