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Rand Paul and the limits of the ‘tea party’ revolution

Rand Paul
REUTERS/Jake Stevens
Rand Paul

On Tuesday, Rand Paul showed the possibilities before the “tea party” movement with his landslide win in Kentucky’s Republican primary for US Senate.

Since then, he has showed the tea party’s limitations.

In the past five days, Mr. Paul has made several elementary political errors.

He has equivocated on whether the Civil Rights Act was right to force private business to comply.

He has called the Obama administration “un-American” for saying its job was to keep its “the boot on the neck of BP” in the Gulf oil spill.

And he has said that the search for blame in the West Virginia mine accident might be fruitless. Sometimes “accidents happen,” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that rookie candidates sometimes “stumble.”

The comments do suggest political naivete. But to cast them off as merely the product of political inexperience is perhaps to gloss over one of the greatest challenges facing the tea party movement as it seeks to influence politics.

To remain true to the tea party ideology – to go beyond the Beltway horse-trading and firmly stand on the principles of a smaller, less-intrusive government – is, in some instances, to occupy a spot on the political fringes that is anathema and in some cases abhorrent to many in the American mainstream.

What the tea party wants

While Paul’s comments are political gaffes, they do not appear to be too far afield from tea party doctrine – to the degree that such a thing exists.

The battle flag of the tea parties has been the Revolutionary War “Don’t Tread on Me” banner. But the enemy to liberty, in this instance, is not the British, but the overbearing American government itself.

The tea parties’ 10-point Contract From America includes “restore fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government in Washington.” As if to underscore the point, it also includes: “demand a balanced budget” and “end runaway government spending.”

Paul has been anointed to carry this gospel to Washington, and in each instance, Paul’s comments last week spoke to the desire to lessen the grip of the American government on its people – in this case, business.

In theory, almost all Republicans have this aim. The difference between Paul and more mainstream Republicans, however, has been his apparent willingness (or inability not to) speak the pure doctrine of Barry Goldwater libertarianism – regardless of the political costs.

Paul is burrowing deep into political theory. The fundamental question he is raising is: Who should be in charge of changing the United States – the government or the American people themselves?

Tea party principle, as interpreted by Paul, suggests that the American people must be free to evolve on their own. In other words, businessowners should have the right to discriminate – even though Paul says he “abhors” racism – because the alternative is a slippery slope of government interference, leading to tyranny.

For people like Paul, the hope is problems such as racism will be increasingly exposed as abhorrent, and society will gradually change on its own without government interference.

Yet on race in particular, one prominent conservative abandoned this philosophy.

The late William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review, originally opposed the Civil rights Act. “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” Mr. Buckley said in 2004, according to The New York Times. “I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Who owns America today?

Perhaps the greatest threat to Paul – and the tea party – is that they appear to be arguing a case that, for all practical purposes, has already been settled for the majority of Americans. The America of the Founding Fathers roots – a modest, decentralized, and agrarian nation – is gone, or is at least being pushed to the demographic margins, inhabiting the great red swath of the country’s middle.

Politically, the America of today is as much a product of Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – of the sprawling government programs of Medicaid and Social Security as much as the Second Amendment and its provision for nongovernment militias.

Though he was speaking of Paul and the Civil Rights Act specifically, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele’s comment Sunday morning on “Fox News Sunday” appears to be broadly relevant to the tea party as a viable political movement:

“The philosophy was misplaced in these times,” he said. “The philosophy got in the way of reality.”

Other, more seasoned tea party candidates, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, might find it easier to bridge the worlds of rhetorical libertarianism and practical politics.

But, speaking generally, Paul’s controversial comments might offer more insight into what the tea parties actually want done in Washington – and the political difficulties of bringing it about.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/24/2010 - 10:01 am.

    The fact that these “Tea Partiers” refuse to acknowledge that we have a functioning, representative democracy, and that the Civil Rights Act, itself, represents our society’s evolution away from racism and its effects, reveals who it is that favors tyranny.

    They don’t agree with what government “of the people, by the people and for the people” has done, consequently, they want to take control of government in order to remake society and business both to suit their own, very dysfunctional and limited ideology and, in the end, pad the pockets of those whom they regard to be most deserving (namely themselves).

    The god of the Tea Partiers is their own wealth and their own sense of comfort, safety and well being (or, more likely, the fear of the loss of those things). Since they are the types of people trying to use wealth to reassure them of their own worth (in an effort to counterbalance their own abiding inner sense of worthlessness), and their discomfort also arises from unresolved internal issues, they will never be satisfied, will never have enough of money, safety, security, or well being, but will pursue any means necessary to try to get more of those things.

    What they’ve never learned, is that you can’t fix deep, internal problems by applying things to the outside of your life.

    It’s almost as if they are leaking billions of barrels of oil deep within themselves, but desperately trying to pretend there is no huge internal mess arising from within them, and, instead of capping the well of dysfunctional thinking and behavior, only trying to mop up the scum on the water, the beaches, and the marshes (which, somehow, they only see in other people’s lives… NEVER their own).

    We can only hope that Rand Paul confirms what the majority of the American Public (80% non Tea Partiers) already sense. There’s something about these people and the solutions they propose that just doesn’t seem right and doesn’t make any sense in the real world where the rest of us live.

    They don’t deserve election but they do deserve to find all the help they need to find their way back to a happy, healthier, more accurate sense of reality (if they’ll accept it).

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/24/2010 - 10:23 am.

    //Their two strongest slogans are “Send a message to Washington” and “Take back America.”
    Yet when the new members of Congress whom these slogans elect in November take office, the question becomes: Will they stand firmly on partisan sidelines continuing to shout slogans? Or will they reach across the aisle in the interest of the country? Will they offer constructive proposals to help solve our problems?//

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 05/24/2010 - 12:54 pm.

    This is an excellent analysis; Sappenfield has really nailed this issue down succinctly.

    Rand Paul is an intellectual, he’s trying to bring highly evolved, well considered set of conclusions to a public that is, today, completely broken to the harness of the 30 second sound bite. He appeals to conservatives, even conservatives such as me that are at the very small “l” end of the Libertarian spectrum that understand his message in its admittedly unpolished state because even where we might not agree, at least we are speaking the same language.

    The trick for Paul’s team is to allow him to keep his momentum while restraining his penchant for straying off script long enough for him to get used to speaking to a public that includes those that are always on the look-out for messages that are easily bent.

    Again, I must congratulate Sappenfield for supplying content rarely seen on Minnpost!

  4. Submitted by Bruce Kvam on 05/24/2010 - 03:28 pm.

    Paul’s ideology might work had America stayed a sparsely populated, homogeneous agrarian economy based on cheap slave and indentured labor in which a tiny minority of the populace could actually vote. The implicit social contracts in such a society didn’t need federal intervention; everyone knew everyone, authority figures had great autonomy and the stigma of betraying friends and neighbors was enough to keep everyone in line.

    But in a country of 300 million people from hundreds of different countries and ethnicities, living in very densely populated areas where most neighbors don’t know each other, we have all become anonymous to one another, and there is no implied social contract.

    Perhaps as important, major decisions that rule are fates are very often not made at our dinner tables, the city council chambers, the state capitol, or even the White House. They are made at BP headquarters in London, the Toyota offices in Tokyo, OPEC meetings in Vienna, or in caves in Pakistan.

    Rand Paul’s Libertarian ideology does not scale well to the global economy. Giant corporations such as BP, Toyota, Goldman-Sachs, and so on do not have the best interest of Americans at heart: their motive is pure profit. The implicit social contract that Libertarian ideology presumes has to be made explicit in federal law and regulation when so many of the actors are not Americans, do not live in America and have no love for or feel any responsibility for America.

    When one company’s foolish mistake can destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Americans, despoil hundreds of miles of beaches and wetlands, kill thousands upon thousands of fish and animals, the Libertarian ideal of a tiny, powerless federal government cannot work.

    The budgets of multinational corporations such as GlaxoSmithKline, Toyota, BP, Halliburton and Exxon are greater than countries such as Sweden, Iran and North Korea. It is naive to treat them as anything but foreign powers with their own agendas. The federal government must be large enough to restrain potential damage from BP in the same way that our military must be large enough to protect us from Iran and Al Qaeda.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 05/24/2010 - 05:08 pm.

    I personally agree with a number of Mr. Paul’s
    stances. Such as, Reforming drug laws, closing Guantanamo, getting out of two wars, (Iraq and Afghanistan are too costly, both in human and fiscal terms) and repealing the Patriot Act.

    As Tom says, Paul will get to be a better speaker and show improvement in media relations. I think there is a degree of libertarian in most folks, depending on the particular issue and the ideology that is the foundation for those views.

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