Former Bush speechwriter, Mike Gerson, and David Brooks have been working to show why the Tea Party is at odds with some key aspects of conservatism, as Gerson comments, “It is at odds with Abraham Lincoln’s inclusive tone and his conviction that government policies could empower individuals. It is inconsistent with religious teaching on government’s responsibility to seek the common good and to care for the weak. It does not reflect a Burkean suspicion of radical social change.”
My suspicion of the Tea Party stems from the fact that I grew up on conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Irving Babbitt. As a Catholic, the nativist rhetoric of the Tea Party echoes back to a time when a time that many believed you couldn’t be Catholic and American, just like today many think you can’t be Muslim and American. What we see reflected in the Tea Party is an ethnocentrism that chooses to selfishly horde the American dream.
In his column (linked to above), Gerson has raised some key questions about problematic Tea Party thinking: 1. They tend to think anything not written in the Constitution is unconstitutional, especially government programs like Medicare and Social Security. 2. As I mentioned above, they have a nasty nativist streak when it comes to immigration. 3. The have a problematic approach to the 2nd Amendment.
I have already critiqued the 2nd question and I am rather ambivalent about the 2nd Amendment debates, but I did want to offer some thoughts on the 1st question Gerson raises.
-The reduction of constitutionality to what is expressly said in the Constitution reflects the kind of radical fundamentalism that generally drives most Catholics nuts when it comes to Scriptural interpretation. It also reflects ignorance of the Constitution’s demand that Congress regulate inter-state commerce. Granted this aspect of Constitutional law has been abused with the blessing of the Supreme Court (see Rehnquist’s opinion in U.S. v Lopez), but as soon as the train was invented Congress naturally had an expanded regulatory portfolio. I remain convinced that if you want to reduce the involvement of government you have to start living locally. Don’t buy food that crosses state lines, etc. In this way, the Crunchy-Con movement is on its way to getting things right. At the very least they aren’t hypocrites.
-Inherent to Gerson’s critique is the tension between idealism and prudence. Lets say the government programs created since the New Deal (maybe even back to Lincoln?) are indeed unconstitutional. A Catholic approach to the social order would demand that we find some way to assist those who would be suddenly displaced by such programs. Take Gerson’s example, “In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 13 million elderly Americans into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism.” I may be able to take the Tea Party somewhat seriously if they were to propose solutions to a problem like this. Gerson goes on to raise other issues that pit idealism against prudence and social obligation, which you can read for yourself. Overall, just recognize that if the Tea Party were to get its way we would still be faced with incredible social problems, which the demands of Christian charity compel us to deal with. Are government-run social programs better than individual Christian charity? Most certainly not. But are government-run social programs better than nothing? You betcha.