February 19, 2016

February 19, 2016 | Lecture on Political Thought

A New Era in Conservative Politics: The Tea Party’s Lasting Influence

Less a new, independent movement than a reinvigoration of conservatism, the Tea Party has transformed American politics. It has reestablished the centrality of the U.S. Constitution in public discourse, made the federal debt a national-level question, and resurrected the necessity of holding elected officials accountable to their constituencies. In this Heritage Foundation Lecture, Stephen Hayes, James Ceaser, and Michael Needham each provide insightful commentary on the genesis of the Tea Party, its influence on past elections, contributions to American political thought, and status as a continuing champion for American principles in action.

Key Points

  1. The Tea Party is not merely a momentary mood, but a lasting, populist wing of the conservative movement.
  2. The Tea Party has succeeded in bringing the Constitution back into American politics, not in a legalistic sense, but in a broader cultural and political sense.
  3. Among the Tea Party’s core objectives have been pointing out the grave dangers of unchecked government spending and using new means to keep legislators accountable.
  4. The Tea Party has shown that compromise is not the only political virtue—at times, obstinancy is necessary as well.

The Tea Party: Movement or Mood?

In the spring of 2012, I had a conversation with a top advisor to Mitt Romney. He and I were delayed at an airport and discussed whether the Tea Party is a mood or a movement. The more beers we had, the more heated the discussion became, and I argued that the Tea Party is in fact a movement. His argument was that the Tea Party is just a mood.

I would like to think the title of our panel today—“The Tea Party Turns Five”—means that I basically won the argument. I can call him up and gloat because I don’t know many people who can stay in a mood—whether a good mood or a bad mood—for five years. Nonetheless, I do think the debate really continues, and it continues between me and this fellow, who’s a friend of mine. It’s possible that when we have this debate in 20 years, we may not be talking about the Tea Party as we understand it today, but we will continue to talk about its influence.

The Tea Party is less a new, independent movement than a reinvigoration, another manifestation, of the conservative movement. And it is something that we’ve seen strengthened in response to government overreach. We can trace the main inflection points of the conservative movement: Goldwater, the Reagan Revolution in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Republican Revolution in the mid-1990s, and of course the Tea Party for the past five years. It is remarkable in some respects that the Tea Party remains as influential today as it is, given the lack of positive media attention—which is to say virtually none—and aggressive government moves against the Tea Party.

The Tea Party and the Media

The media loves to talk about the Tea Party; it keeps some writers at The New York Times employed almost full time. The “Tea Party” has become lazy media shorthand for “conservatives I don’t like,” like “neo-con” used to be at the end of the Bush Administration. They like to focus on Tea Party losses and the problems the Tea Party has caused Republicans. They don’t talk as much about the Tea Party’s election victories, such as Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, who won over Charlie Crist just in 2010, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul. We are seeing the influence and impact of those victories every single day.

It is far from clear in the electoral context that the “good” establishment candidates that the media are fond of talking about would have even won their elections had they won their Republican primaries. For example, take Sue Lowden in Nevada: I don’t think she would have won in a general election. As often as not, these candidates lost for simple reasons: They had no message; they had no ideas; they had no passion. And as often as not, these are the kinds of politicians who come to Washington to fill a chair or have a title rather than do a job.

Beyond the negative media attention, the Tea Party has survived and thrived despite indisputable IRS targeting. Many fellow reporters here in Washington say, “Well, you know, everybody was targeted; the Tea Party wasn’t really singled out. You don’t understand. Didn’t you read Jonathan Weisman’s piece in The New York Times? Everybody was targeted, so nobody was really targeted.” But go back to Lois Lerner’s first statement when she planted the question at the American Bar Association event. The reason she planted the question was so that she could apologize for the targeting of Tea Party groups, conservative groups, and patriot groups. Even the President of the United States in effect apologized and said somebody would be held accountable for what he said was “inappropriate behavior.”

We know that the U.S. government, in the form of the IRS—among its most feared agencies—went after the Tea Party, and yet Tea Party influence continues. Now, I don’t want to overstate things. We are a long way from the days when Nancy Pelosi was claiming to be a Tea Party member. Remember, she claimed she was the rightful spokesman for the Tea Party? Nobody is making that claim, but at some point there have been so many stories about the death of the Tea Party that it becomes a little bit silly. If the Tea Party were truly dead, we would not need people reminding us all the time. When somebody dies, he dies once, and you hear about it once; you don’t need to continue to remind us.

The Tea Party’s Enduring Influence

Let us review some exit polling from 2010, 2012, and 2014, about support for the Tea Party. The same question was asked in each of the elections, and, of course, we have to account for the differences in the makeup of the electorate. Everyone believes 2010 was the height of the Tea Party’s influence, and in 2014 the mainstream media’s perspective was that the Tea Party was either on its way out or already dead. In the 2010 exit polls in November, 40 percent of voters said they supported the Tea Party, 25 percent said they were neutral, 31 percent said they opposed. That’s at the supposed height of the Tea Party movement. In 2012, with a very different electorate, 21 percent said they support, 42 percent said they were neutral, 30 percent said they opposed. And in 2014, 33 percent said they supported the Tea Party, 28 percent said they were neutral, 36 percent said they were opposed.

What you see from these numbers is that there’s not a huge fluctuation in the kind of support or opposition that the Tea Party has had consistently from its birth through the most recent elections. I would argue that the Tea Party remains influential, particularly in Washington, because the Tea Party dictates the terms of the debates we are having today.

I remember listening to NPR a couple years ago and hearing David Wessel from The Wall Street Journal lament about the gridlock caused by debates over spending and the debt. He thought this debate had kept legislators from doing the kinds of things they were sent to do in Washington, the kinds of legislation that the country really needs. And it was such an interesting moment, because as I was listening to him, my thought was probably the same thought that strikes you: That is what these people were sent here to do. They were sent here to debate spending, they were sent here to debate the debt ceiling, and they were sent here to debate the size and scope of government. It’s entirely appropriate that those are the things that we should be debating.

That was the message of the 2010 elections in many respects. That was, in some ways, the entire point of the Tea Party—to refocus the debate onto different terms rather than going along with all of the sort of perfunctory spending, the rubber stamping of debt ceiling hikes, so that legislators could go on to the things that they are supposed to be doing.

Fixing Washington

This refocusing continues today. Some pundits say that Republicans will really struggle as the new Congress begins because they may be bogged down in debates over debt, spending, and the size and scope of government. But Republicans should be having debates over those things. That’s in many ways why they came here. They are attempting to fix much of the problem with Washington now. Washington spent too much money over too many years, and it did so by not debating these things.

We are having these debates because of the enduring influence of the Tea Party. It is not going anywhere soon in part because the Obama presidency was premised on restoring faith in government before the expansion of government. That’s what the President said in his first inaugural, and it’s what he said in an executive order on his first day in office: restore faith in government in order to expand it. It failed. That experiment didn’t work. Faith in government is at a post-Watergate low right now.

The debate I had with the Romney advisor about the Tea Party’s influence came on the heels of Romney’s attempt in 2012 to woo Tea Party voters at an event in Michigan prior to the Republican primary there. He didn’t do very well at the event; he didn’t do very well in general. There was very little enthusiasm for Mitt Romney among Tea Party voters, though many Tea Party voters showed up and voted for him anyway. But as a mark of a continued influence of the Tea Party, look ahead to 2016. Does any conservative believe that Tea Party voters won’t play a crucial, maybe a decisive role, in shaping the debate in the 2016 Republican primaries? The race itself is likely to feature a handful of very Tea Party friendly Republican candidates—Rubio, Cruz, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, among others. Elevating these kinds of candidates is in part the lasting impact of the Tea Party.

—Stephen F. Hayes is Senior Writer at The Weekly Standard and a Fox News Contributor.

A New Movement

I appreciate the opportunity to participate on this panel with two other observers, Stephen Hayes and Michael Needham, who have direct knowledge of many of the figures involved in launching and maintaining the Tea Party. Access of this kind is the envy of researchers, who often must study their subject from a distance.

There has been one researcher, however, who has been able to overcome this disadvantage by her persistence, her perseverance, and her ingenuous methods of acquiring information. That person is Ms. Lois Lerner, the former head of the division of the Internal Revenue Service that oversees tax-exempt groups. No one has delved more deeply into the organizational structure of the Tea Party, studying its various units, learning how they spend their money, and gathering data on the beliefs of many of the volunteers. It is surely a great misfortune that Ms. Lerner’s magisterial work on this subject has been lost to posterity due to a hard drive malfunction, a tragedy that rivals the loss, by accidental burning, of Thomas Carlyle’s original manuscript on the French Revolution.

Ms. Lerner, as Stephen Hayes just pointed out, is the highest-ranking government official to have issued an apology for inappropriate touching of Tea Party records, acknowledging that it was wrong for the Internal Revenue Service to target groups based on political affiliation: “That was absolutely incorrect, it was insensitive and it was inappropriate.… The IRS would like to apologize for that.” It was quickly seen that this bid for forgiveness was calculated, offered with the aim of deflecting further inquiries into the activities of the Internal Revenue Service; it fell into the genre of what is known as a preemptive apology. Ms. Learner was also striving to shift responsibility for the errors from any upper-level administrators—the 1 percent of the federal service—to some low-level bureaucrats—the 99 percent—who made the mistakes. To further distance herself from any charges of wrongdoing, Ms. Lerner identified these “line people” as working in some far-off place called Cincinnati. Cincinnati, for those who don’t know, is in Uzbekistan, about 30 kilometers southeast of Tashkent.

A Patriotic, not Political, Party

What is the Tea Party? Unfortunately, the term “party,” which was adopted to evoke the patriotic events in Boston in 1773, confuses matters by making one think of a political party. The Tea Party is not a political party. It is better to characterize it as a movement. It emerged spontaneously, like a contagion, and it has had no top-down, formal structure. Affiliation is open, porous, and amorphous, with the boundaries for inclusion being vague, undetermined, and un-policed. Although Tea Party sentiment derived from the same initial impulses, identifiers have taken different positions on many issues. These characteristics are common to other movements in American history, such as the populist movement of the late nineteenth century, the progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement.

There are two other qualities that movements share which merit notice. Spawned by an angry reaction to a perceived wrong, movements indulge in many excesses and are prone to making political misjudgments. The other side of this coin is that movements introduce enormous energy and enthusiasm into the political process—assets that can be sorely lacking in the ordinary conduct of politics. Both these qualities have been evident in the record of the Tea Party. It has been given at times to political misjudgments that have hurt the achievement of its own aims, but it has breathed life into the conservative movement and helped to bring many new faces onto the American political scene.

Defining Without Malice

To define the character of the Tea Party without malice—I’ll get to those who define the Tea Party with malice in a minute—the following points can be made. First, the Tea Party is populist and proudly so. Identifiers have been conscious of the movement as being of and by the people. They have been suspicious not only of the actions of the institutions in Washington, which to them have seemed to be dominated by interests far removed from the lives and concerns of average Americans, but also of much of the record and behavior of the official Republican Party. There has been little doubt from the beginning that the Tea Party was a conservative movement and therefore closer to the Republican Party. Its aim was to renew, save, or take over that party, which Tea Party identifiers saw as having lost its bearings and having succumbed to the pull of the interests and the prerogatives of holding power. The Tea Party has shunned establishment figures of all sorts, embracing the reflexive attitude or prejudice that if you’re in the establishment, you must somehow be tainted.

Second, the original and core Tea Party message has been to point out the grave dangers of unchecked government spending. To be more precise, spending relative to government income. The main issue of the Tea Party has been the massive and burgeoning government debt, especially the federal debt. The Tea Party has introduced the theme of intergenerational injustice, under which this generation spends without limit and leaves the bill to the generation that follows.

Finally, the Tea Party has focused on bringing the Constitution back into the discussion of American politics, not in a merely legalistic sense but in a broader and more political sense. Tea Party identifiers have stressed that the recent course of American government, as reflected in massive debt, has been in violation of the Constitution and the aims of the original American patriots. The Tea Party, like no other movement, has sought to tie itself to the past and to the Constitution, and it has sought to introduce constitutional concerns into a program and agenda for American politics. Its original emphasis on the national debt has more recently carried over to another constitutional concern: executive and administrative overreach, above all in the area of presidential action changing the status of illegal immigrants.

Defining with Malice

Now let me turn, as promised, to the characterization of the Tea Party that has come from those motivated by malice. The malicious characterization has been extremely important in American politics. It is almost impossible to overestimate its significance for the Democrats and the American Left. The Left, with the President at the lead, has sought to make the Tea Party into the very symbol of extremism. Every distortion imaginable has been attached to the Tea Party in an effort to discredit it. Its core concerns about the debt and the Constitution—issues about which Democrats disagree—have been ignored. Democrats have sought instead to attack it by associating the Tea Party with more sinister claims. So while Tea Party identifiers have spoken mainly of the dangers of debt, Leftist commentators sought to depict it as motivated by racism, sexism, and religious extremism.

The aim of the Left has been to demonize the Tea Party, depicting it as an illegitimate movement. The Republican Party, for the Left, is seen as borderline illegitimate, the Tea Party as fully illegitimate. Anything it says or does is treated as beyond the pale. For the Left, especially in the years from 2009 until the elections of 2014, the unwillingness of this illegitimate force to accede to the Democrats was used as warrant to justify going outside regular constitutional channels and to act without regard to constitutional forms. Because the Tea Party in this period would not compromise, extraordinary measures were permissible. The Left today believes it operates under the notion of a higher law or a supra-constitutional sanction, all because of the illegitimacy of the Tea Party. Not just partisans, but a whole group of political scientists in Washington have contributed to this radical view. They have invented supposedly neutral categories, like dysfunctionality (ascribed to the Tea Party), to warrant extra-constitutional presidential actions in the domestic sphere.

Tea Party Accomplishments and Problems

I will conclude with a few observations about what I see as the accomplishments and the problems of the Tea Party.

Its first accomplishment, as I suggested, was to bring the national debt onto the front burner and to get many people to think about the problem of the debt. It is clear that the Democrats have had little interest in this issue and that they would have preferred never to have heard it mentioned. Concern for the national debt may have receded a bit in national attention—though not in importance—from 2010, when the Tea Party managed to force it onto the radar screen, but it still is considered important.

The Tea Party also succeeded, at least somewhat, in making the issue of the debt a matter of more than technical or purely economic concern. The Left likes to bask in calling for additional spending as a way of touting its claim to advancing social justice. The Tea Party sought to show that the debt was also a question of justice. It reminded Americans of the fact that if the government overspends today, someone will have to pay the debt tomorrow. This is the issue of intergenerational injustice, in which those living today obligate and in effect take from those who come after. Calling for more spending investments is in most cases only a euphemism for theft. By speaking of the theft from our children and grandchildren, the Tea Party at least began to raise a question of justice. By what right, as Jefferson once asked, does one generation “making merry in their day” have the right to obligate a future generation without its consent?

Where the Tea Party truly succeeded on the issue of debt was at the state level. In judging politics over the past few years, commentators may have missed part of the real change in American politics, which has occurred in the states. The Tea Party was helpful in the election of many governors and state legislators whose concern was with debt, which in turn has led to policy changes that have sought to control public unions and to limit spending. This change is not only taking place in Republican states, but it’s now going on in some Democratic states as well.

Obviously, with control of only the House from 2010 to 2014, the Republican Party, with its Tea Party component, was unable to impose the same kind of restraints. The frustration with this situation led to some tactical blunders, of which the threat of a shutdown was the most evident. Also, in achieving part of its goal, which it did through sequestration, the Tea Party participated in the error of cutting too much from defense spending.

The Tea Party’s second accomplishment, again as I previously noted, has to do with bringing the Constitution back into public discourse. By arguing that the Constitution could be a guide for the thinking of a political party and a program, the Tea Party has helped to bring back the question of what the Constitution allows and does not allow. It has insisted that we should view the Constitution as more than an instrument of individual rights protected by courts. The Constitution is also a popular charter of government that needs defending and interpreting by a political party and a political movement. It was this view that led in 2011 to the reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives, a symbolic act to which many Democratic members were forced to submit.

There’s a problem here as well. Often I think many in the Tea Party have a deficient understanding of the Constitution. Because some affiliates of the Tea Party are highly oriented toward a libertarian perspective, they seem to reason along the following lines: if libertarianism is good, then the Constitution must be thoroughly libertarian. They err, I believe, in underselling the role that government should play, particularly in the conduct of foreign policy, and they were too inclined to overlook security concerns and to endorse limitations of the executive power in this realm.

The third accomplishment of the Tea Party has been to provide starch to the conservative movement. This starch has been needed to counter the fabric softener that has sometimes been used too liberally by the Republican Party establishment. The dialectic between the two is well known: the Tea Party has insisted on not conceding and continuing to fight; the establishment has been willing in many instances to give up the ship, as in the inclination after the 2012 presidential election to concede that Obamacare was now the law of the land.

Virtues of Compromise and Obstinacy

The dialectic between starch and fabric softener leads directly to the deeper question of the control of language and of the value of certain terms. The word “compromise” is an example. It has recently been praised in Washington, mostly by the Left, not only as a good, but almost as a supreme good. No wonder, too, because in this context, it meant mostly acceding to President Obama. Thus, pages of commentary have been dedicated to pious encomiums to compromise, with many pointing out that the Founders at the convention engaged in constant compromise. Many of the same people, however, elsewhere criticize the Founders for compromising with slavery. A disposition to compromise may well be a middling virtue, but it must always be subordinate to the more important question of compromise about what. Compromise is not the only virtue; there is something to be said at times in favor of obstinacy.

Finally, the Tea Party has to be judged in part by its electoral accomplishments since its inception in 2009. The Republican Party has gained enormously in all realms except, obviously, the control of the presidency. The House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the governors and the state legislatures from 2010 to 2014 have all been trending Republican.

There has been a sea change in this period in the relationship between the two parties, and it has been in favor of the Republicans. Here is the question that needs to be asked: Have these gains been made because of the Tea Party, in spite of the Tea Party, or a little bit because of and a little bit in spite of the Tea Party? I’ll leave that question for you to answer.

—James W. Ceaser is the Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and a Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution.

Why the Tea Party Exists

Part of why the conservative movement exists, part of why the Tea Party exists, is to correct what I like to call a genetic flaw within the party of limited government.

As conservatives, we want our elected officials to restrain the federal government. But in asking our representatives to tie Washington’s hands, we’re asking them to tie their own hands. Unfortunately, this city gives Members of Congress a lot of strong incentives not to follow through on that. When you give up the ability to steer resources to your district through earmarks, you know you’ll have fewer local special interests looking to you as their guy in Washington. When you enact legislation that removes Washington’s influence in such matters as local infrastructure policy, you and your staff lose a lot of value when you go through the revolving door. When you make the lawmaking process more transparent, when you open up the back room, you limit the most powerful leaders’ ability to direct the process toward their desired outcomes.

From a purely self-interested perspective, it does politicians little good to restrain themselves. For that reason, you are always going to have a tension between a conservative movement that believes in limited government and civil society, and politicians who are sent to Washington who do not have the will to follow through on those commitments.

The Tea Party has started to chip away at this problem. It is forcing our political leadership to be more responsive to conservative concerns by challenging the basic political assumptions that guide most action in Washington.

Rocking the Boat

Think about all the disruptions the Tea Party has caused.

Five years ago, Congress passed a new entitlement, and we’re still talking about it. That is not supposed to happen. Once the law of the land is “settled,” you move on to the next big issue. You do corporate tax reform. You do amnesty. But instead we are still talking about Obamacare repeal. That’s because the Tea Party has not let Republican leaders get away from the issue. When John Boehner and his staff were privately telling members to let the issue die because re-litigating it would be bad politics in 2010, Tea Partiers were rallying for repeal. Blogs like RedState were feeding them information on procedural tactics they could use to force the issue, like discharge petitions. Equipped with the facts, the grassroots were able to force leadership’s hand to commit to full repeal once Republicans took control of Congress.

In Washington appropriators are supposed to get their way. But for several years, we’ve seen the appropriators’ plans derailed by opposition within their own party. That’s not supposed to happen. The appropriations chairmen are supposed to get their members in a room, throw some money to the “no” votes to get them to “yes,” and call it a day. But now we have a sequester that is the law of the land. Now those bills are available immediately online for the public to see. Now it’s possible to call out the Members who get kickbacks in real time, and groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth make it even easier by placing the votes on scorecards that get updated in real time. Members don’t always vote the right way, but now they know better than to do it without thinking through how to justify those votes back home. Whereas yesterday’s Republican activist might have been sympathetic to a Republican-passed appropriations package, today’s Tea Partier begins his analysis from intense skepticism of all spending bills.

The farm bill is supposed to pass because it is good politics. Democrats get food stamps and Republicans get their agriculture subsidies. But now the farm bill is actually a tough vote for Republican Members. The last farm bill was split at one point, the idea being that the Members would have to show their constituents where they stood on its individual components. Though in the end the farm bill was pieced back together in the last debate, now the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the House has admitted publicly that holding the farm bill coalition together with the politics of food stamps is no longer politically sustainable. That’s big change.

Debating the Big Issues

Nowadays, we actually have major national debates over so-called must-pass legislation. That is not entirely new, but it is not the way Washington likes to work. The debt limit is just supposed to go up. The government is just supposed to be funded. Thanks to the Tea Party, now we are having national debates about the big issues every time we reach one of these milestones: executive amnesty, Obamacare, spending, highway reform, education reform. Policy discussions get elevated when the gears get stuck on them.

Even on foreign policy there has been a change. When there is a treaty up for review, Washington says you are supposed to pass it because it is the right thing to do, and political consensus in foreign policy is a good thing. You pass New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] because it gets you nuclear modernization. You pass the U.N. Convention on Disabilities because it is the politically correct thing to do.

But something funny has happened in Washington of late: We have actually had fights about these issues. Activists call congressional offices about them. And as a partial consequence of that, the Senate is waking up to the fact that it is supposed to do more than rubber stamp legislation. Advice and consent is now about more than consent. And our President knows better than to assume that when he announces a bad deal on Iran, he will get our Senate to coalesce around his agreement merely because it is what the Council on Foreign Relations thinks is best.

People in Washington often decry all of this. They say Washington is not working anymore. Congress is dysfunctional. Yet every one of these developments is good. It means more discussion about the merits of policy and less about the propriety of following the old business-as-usual process. It means voters have a better understanding of where their representatives in Washington stand. It is messy and difficult, sure, but that is inevitable when you stop putting off debates Washington does not want to have and forcing Washington to grapple with what a commitment to limited government really entails.

Internet and the World of Politics

So what’s driving all of this disruption?

I think a lot of it is the Internet. If you go back to 1995, 83 percent of the profits in the music industry were controlled by five large record labels—EMI, Sony Music, and so forth—but technology changes the model. These five companies no longer control every single part of the production process, from finding the talent, training the talent, producing the records, distributing, and ultimately capturing those profits. First we had Napster, peer-to-peer file sharing, iTunes, and ultimately Justin Bieber gets found on YouTube—a totally different model for the music industry. Now the five largest record labels in the music industry today have about 23 percent of the profits.

Now, 20 years later, we are seeing the exact same thing happening in politics right now. We no longer live in a world where a politician can go home and brag about the earmark that he brought home without somebody having read the legislative text online and pointed out that he is leaving out the other 10,000 earmarks and the bridge to Alaska that was part of the package that let him bring home the bacon to his district. You no longer live in a world where a Member of Congress can go to his district and say, “I just voted for a farm bill and this is a good thing for our district because we are a farm district,” without somebody having read it and realizing that 80 percent of the farm bill is food stamps.

During the height of the farm debate last year The Wall Street Journal published an article on Marlin Stutzman’s district in Indiana, one of the top agriculture districts. The authors talked to farmers who were proud and supportive of Marlin Stutzman voting against a farm bill because they realized that while there was some benefit coming to them, in the grand scheme of things, the 80 percent of the bill was food stamps.

The ability for people to read bill text online has changed so much. Neither party can say one thing in their home district while voting differently here in Washington.

Washington Worsens, Grassroots Strengthen

The second reason I think the grassroots are more powerful today is that Washington is just worse than it was 10, 20, 40, 50 years ago. When you have a tax code that’s longer than the King James Bible; when you have a regulatory regime that takes a trillion dollars out of the economy; when you have a federal budget of $3.8 trillion, there is more opportunity for Washington to give out favors for these special interests. Most of these favors go to specific beneficiaries in Washington, all at the expense of the taxpayer or the forgotten man. In the past, the forgotten man did not have a voice in Washington. No interest group ever lobbied on his behalf. But today, his cause is the cause of the Tea Party, which is at its core a movement opposed to a big government that taxes him so that it can dole out favors to the well-connected.

Washington does not speak to the real anxieties of the American people, and given an environment where it is easier than ever to organize, we should not be surprised that the conservative movement is stronger.

Tea Party Is Here to Stay

So is this going to be a lasting change in politics? I think so. At the very least, you cannot put the genie of online accountability back in the bottle. Tea Party–style activism is here to stay.

But more importantly, I think the Tea Party is here for the long term because all of its efforts at accountability are tied to its role in the intellectual debate for the soul of the right. That debate is not going to end anytime soon, and it is going to define not just this presidential primary but most of our major disagreements about the policy agenda the right should offer the country.

One approach—Ross Douthat called it the “donorist agenda,” the “Acela Corridor” agenda—is laid out in the Republican National Committee’s post-2012 political autopsy, the “Growth and Opportunity Project—which is very explicit. It says that we need to stop talking about the social issues. It says that we have to provide amnesty and worker permits for four or five million people illegally in the country. It says that we have to, on most of the major problems that face America, have more of a messaging-based approach than a kind of fundamental rethinking of what a reform agenda would look like. We can be anti-tax because that is good for business. We can be anti-regulation because that’s good for business.

Getting into the Weeds

But when we get in the weeds on the real problems Americans are concerned about—the higher education cartel and the student debt bubble, the welfare system that traps millions in poverty rather than boosting them to prosperity, the breakdown of our marriage culture, the financial regulations that encourage bailouts for the privileged and socialize losses in times of crisis—we should not get in the weeds because the politics are bad and conservative policies will not be good for the corporate donors the Republican Party tries to placate.

In contrast, the Tea Party agenda—at Heritage we call it Opportunity for All, Favoritism to None—diagnoses our problems, offers solutions that work by changing the dynamic in Washington that prevents real change. Solutions like Mike Lee’s Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act, which blows up the accreditation cartel in higher education and replaces it instead with a kind of federalism-based approach to accreditation. Solutions like Ted Cruz’s energy legislation—legislation that actually speaks to the price pressures and the wage pressures that most Americans who feel unheard in Washington, and are right to feel unheard in Washington. Solutions like Jeb Hensarling’s bill to wind down Fannie and Freddie, which may be bad for the realtor lobby but is good for working Americans who do not need another housing crisis while we are still working our way out of the last one. The real debate is between a Washington establishment that is fine with conservative principles as long as they do not disrupt the status quo and a conservative movement that recognizes that real reform does not come without undoing the special interest giveaways that distort our markets and our politics.

Damaging the Status Quo for the Common Good

It is impossible for those of us who want to have an aggressive policy agenda, who want to move the country in a different direction, to succeed unless we do damage to the status quo in Washington. When the tax code is specifically structured to give benefit to those who have special carve outs, you cannot have fundamental tax reform unless you upset some people on K Street who are invested in the status quo. If you want to improve the higher education system, to modernize education so that every person who goes to college does not necessarily learn in the same exact environment that people learned in Oxford 800 years ago, you are going to do damage to some of the special interests in Washington that are invested in the status quo.

And so I think marrying these policies that can provide opportunity—the policies of a conservative reform agenda—with an explicit willingness to attack the favoritism is really the only way forward. It is the only way toward reform and it is why all of us who are invested in reform need to be equally invested in the continued growth and success of the conservative movement, of the Tea Party, against the forces of the status quo and the establishment here in town.

—Michael A. Needham is the Chief Executive Officer for Heritage Action for America.