In only 21 months, the tea party has exploded from a handful of scattered, spontaneous rallies into a full-fledged national movement capable of throwing out incumbents. Challenging entrenched Washington habits, it is a force both parties must reckon with.
Skeptics and opponents, however, continue to ask two basic questions. First, does the tea party have any real philosophical depth, a historical pedigree? Second, will its force dissipate after the elections?
In short, critics accept that the tea party has a present — but they question whether it has a past and a future.
Yes and yes. Yes, the tea party has a pedigree as old as our nation, and yes, we think it is likely to continue to play a significant role in politics after Nov. 2. People in both parties who hope to wish it away and continue business as usual had better think twice.
Americans have been disappointed by leaders in both parties who campaigned to right past wrongs and then, after getting to Washington, cared more about power than promises. Tea party supporters care more about principle than party labels or politics.
Tea party members voice the kinds of concerns that even some of President Barack Obama’s former supporters are beginning to raise. As one Obama voter asked the president at a recent town hall, “Is the American dream dead for me?”
These are the questions Americans are asking nationwide — in their kitchens, church halls and ballparks. These are the concerns expressed at tea party rallies everywhere.
The tea party seeks answers to such questions not in the dictates of Washington today but in our country’s founding principles. There, it finds a prescription for constitutional, limited government based on God-given rights — not a Utopian blueprint for bureaucratic-managed change.
The tea party, in other words, is that inner voice that speaks to us when things go wrong — the conscience of the nation at a crucial point in our history.
What has gone wrong is clear. The “stimulus” package has failed to get this country back on its feet. The latest unemployment figures show that we still have anemic growth and nearly 10 percent unemployment. As Americans suffered, Washington wasted its time on a gargantuan, unmanageable and unaffordable health care package. No wonder many Americans feel frustrated.
But underneath the frustration, the tea party has roots that are deeper and aim higher. Deeper because it is within the best tradition of popular movements in our history — from the Great Awakening that gave rise to the American Revolution to the conservative revival that helped elect Ronald Reagan. Higher because it aims to recover our moral compass, bequeathed by our Founders and preserved ever since.
The tea party also symbolizes Americans’ indomitable desire for a better life. It reminds us that we’re a country of free people who understand that liberty is fragile and must be vigilantly defended.
Some past grass-roots movements have succeeded, and others have failed. Success comes because the energy of the moment is translated into a lasting, governing philosophy consistent with the settled opinions of the American people.
On this score, prospects look good. The tea party isn’t about to go away after the November elections. Its powerful message of limited government is likely to remain a sharp thorn in the side of those in both parties who want to continue politics as usual.
Take Obama’s health care package, which tea partiers have labeled “Obamacare.” Obama and Democrats rammed this through Congress, against the wishes of a majority of the American people.
But the repealing legislation should not itself contain some new massive health care plan. Even if the legislation offers good policy, the tea party is here to remind Republicans that pushing large, unexamined bills through Congress is wrong. We need to repeal Obamacare immediately, then openly debate and pass conservative-drawn, sensible and broadly supported health care reform.
It’s no surprise that pollsters Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen found that more than “half of the electorate now say they favor the tea party movement, around 35 percent say they support the movement, 20 [percent] to 25 percent self-identify as members of the movement and 2 [percent] to 7 percent say they are activists.”
This means that all those protesters with their Constitutions at tea party rallies nationwide represent millions of fellow Americans. The answers they seek won’t be found in the thousands of pages of new legislation coming out of Washington.
They are in those documents that first defined this nation and provide the most just framework for a free people to work hard, play by the rules and succeed.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation. Sen. Jim DeMint is a Republican from South Carolina.
First appeared in Politico