Saturday, October 16, 2010

On the Tea Party and Academia

In today's Wall Street Journal, the Hoover Institution's Peter Berkowitz wrote a profound piece regarding the prominent misunderstanding of the Tea Party.  While there are many problems with the Tea Party, the fundamentals of the movement are sound.  One of the issues, as Berkowitz alludes to, is that "the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies."  These individuals have become an easy target for ridicule and disregard from the Left and have prevented rational conservatives from fully endorsing the movement.

This is a shame because the principles of the Tea Party are extremely valid and worthwhile.  The concepts of limited government and individual liberty are founding tenets of the American system which have, unfortunately, been slowly eroded over the years.  The recognition of this problem and the desire to prevent the future degradation of this arrangement are these most valuable parts of the movement.

The genesis of this erosion is, however, the real issue to which Berkowitz points.  He correctly elucidates the failure of academia to instruct its students in the basic concepts of the American system.  He writes:
For the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs. Meanwhile, leading history departments have emphasized social history and issues of race, class and gender at the expense of constitutional history, diplomatic history and military history.
Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.
Then there are the proliferating classes in practical ethics and moral reasoning. These expose students to hypothetical conundrums involving individuals in surreal circumstances suddenly facing life and death decisions, or present contentious public policy questions and explore the range of respectable progressive opinions for resolving them. Such exercises may sharpen students' ability to argue. They do little to teach about self-government.
Unfortunately, Berkowitz's analysis is all too correct.  The fundamental principles and ideals of political science are essentially ignored throughout the country's educational system.  Students spend more time analyzing revisionist history through modern progressive lenses than scrutinizing the development and interactions of foundational theories that have made America what it is today.

This is the root cause not only of America's wayward drift but the intense emotionalism of the Tea Party.  While many Tea Partiers viscerally understand the deterioration of the country, the deleterious anger and emotion have crowded out the focus on principles that is sorely needed.  Blame for this failure does not solely rest on the shoulders of the Tea Party, but rather on the demagogues who, in their quest for political power, drown out the intellectual voices of reason with the war drums of acrimony.  There are few leaders who have the desire or ability to push the Tea Party into a rational and productive direction.

What America and the Tea Party need are individuals who can guide the warranted, but unproductive, ire into constructive channels.  If academia continues to propagate failed leaders, other avenues should be taken to generate intellectuals schooled in the full history of America.  What is important, though, is not the means of reviving these ideas, but the end of having political and thought leaders who can cogently adduce the principles necessary to keep America on the right path.  The Tea Party's real worth will be shown if it can generate this revival.


  1. You stated, "While many Tea Partiers viscerally understand the deterioration of the country, the deleterious anger and emotion have crowded out the focus on principles that is sorely needed."

    I have been to almost 100 tea parties across the USA, and I have not seen the referenced "deleterious anger and emotion."

    What I have seen were great American Patriots who are consistently focused on their principles - something that political elites from both parties have forgotten.

    At Tea Party conventions and demonstrations, I interviewed hundreds of true patriots and determined that Tea Partiers have five foundational beliefs that are interconnected:
    1. Constitutional compliance
    2. Smaller federal government
    3. States’ rights
    4. Lower spending and taxes
    5. Individual rights, responsibility, and integrity

    Respectfully, Dr B Leland Baker,
    author of Tea Party Revival: The Conscience of a Conservative Reborn - The Tea Party Revolt Against Unconstrained Spending and
    Growth of the Federal Government

  2. Dr. Baker~

    I don't doubt that these five points which you point to are present at Tea Party rallies. Nor do I deny that they are, if you will, the principles of the movement (and for the matter, for the most part correct, in my mind, as to where our country needs to go). However, principles as talking points only get us so far.

    The problem that I see with the Tea Party is not its principles, but that these principles are rather inchoate. They are often voiced with passion, but the discourse often (not always) stops there. Yes, they are "there" but for the most part the movement is one of protest and anger. To be clear, I am not implying that the anger is unfounded or wrong, but rather that anger clouds judgment and focuses energies in the wrong direction. This is what I see as deleterious. Images of angry, protesting individuals do not convince those outside the movement of the soundness of the underlying principles, but scare the unintiated away. I much prefer a rational and presentable discussion about why these principles are correct.

    In this regard, I think your choice of the word "revolt" for the title of your book is telling. As it is now formulated the Tea Party is in opposition, but it is, in most regards not prescriptive. This is the problem I aim to point out. As I said, I largely agree with the principles you elucidated, but revolt in the name of these principles won't do much to change the country.

    What the Tea Party needs, is to channel this energy into productive and forward looking goals. For instance, the Tea Party cannot simply stand in opposition to Obamacare, but needs to offer alternatives that rest soundly in these principles. This is not something I have seen coming from the movement, but I do believe it has the potential to move in this direction. My fear is that without forward-thinking and serious analysis of what these principles mean in practice there will be little progress in fundemenatally altering the wayward direction our country has moved in.

    Thanks for reading and I do appreciate your comments.



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