Is Tea Party Defined By Libertarian Influence?

Rick Santelli's infamous rant

The Cato Institute did a recent policy analysis titled, Libertarian Roots of the Tea Party, that states “the tea party has strong libertarian roots and is a functionally libertarian influence on the Republican Party.”

The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. that was originally founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974. David Kirby, vice president at FreedomWorks and an associate policy analyst for Cato, and Emily Ekins, director of polling at Reason Foundation and a research fellow at Cato, did the analysis.

Kirby and Ekins conclude that “roughly half the tea party is socially conservative, half libertarian”, defining libertarian with a broad stroke of the brush; fiscally conservative, but socially moderate to liberal. That “these voters’ libertarian beliefs distinguish them from liberals and conservatives, even if the word ‘libertarian’ may be unfamiliar to them”. In a sense, you’re libertarian even if you don’t know it.

In their own words, the following summary is offered;

Libertarians led the way for the tea party. Starting in early 2008 through early 2009, we find that libertarians were more than twice as “angry” with the Republican Party, more pessimistic about the economy and deficit since 2001, and more frustrated that people like them cannot affect government than were conservatives. Libertarians, including young people who supported Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, provided much of the early energy for the tea party and spread the word through social media.

Unlike the Cato analysts, I will not be using data analysis techniques of political science to offer a rebuttal, but the simple experiences of a layman. And when I speak of libertarians, I refer to Ron Paul supporters and others who intentionally align themselves outside the two party system because I fail to see how you can separate one from the other.

I submit that the average tea party member bristles at the notion that Ron Paul and his supporters started the tea party, which is heard often from libertarians. As noted in the Cato piece, that “Paul was tea party when tea party wasn’t cool.”

I also suggest that the Cato piece is an attempt to re-write history, if you will. At this point, there can be no denying the influence the tea party has had on modern day politics. Very few expected this phenomenon to still be around at this stage and it’s pretty much a given that the tea party has left an indelible mark on this country’s political history. Something political strategists, scholars, and journalists are reluctant to acknowledge.

As for it’s fiscally conservative libertarian influence on the Republican Party, the tea party may have changed the terminology in use, but the effect has yet to be felt when it comes to actual government spending.

The Cato analysis states that “evidence shows that the first waves of tea parties had a decidedly libertarian flavor. Many young libertarians played key a role as organizers, spreading the word through social networks built during the Ron Paul campaign of 2008.”

Of course, when you juxtapose libertarian with fiscal conservative, it becomes much easier to make such claims. Yet, this is not entirely consistent with what I experienced.

Having been there from the very early days, I recall the first tea party rallies I attended in March and April of 2009. The rallies did not have a political air about them, in the sense of Republican or Democrat. It was we the people taking a stand against government.

By this time, G.W. Bush had ushered in T.A.R.P. and Obama followed with the Stimulus Bill and Americans were scared, frustrated and angry. As they watched their life’s savings and retirement income disappear before their very eyes, they were also fed up with the spending and government intervention with no efforts being made toward accountability.

All of which was captured in the ‘rant heard ’round the world’, when Rick Santelli, standing on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, railed against not only the spending but against “promoting bad behavior”. Suggesting that government should instead “reward people that can carry the water, instead of drink the water.”

That moment was the birth of the tea party movement.

And I vividly recall, as thousands of average, everyday Americans took to the street to express their frustration, the political class and others engaged in the political process, to include most Ron Paul supporters, watched from afar. Bemused by the spectacle before them, not quite sure what to make of it, but very cautious about aligning with it.

Sure, there were some libertarians that were quick to embrace what was happening, but to suggest this was the standard is just not so.

I further submit that as the tea party began espousing free market principles and calling for more limited government, and began looking to our founders as a blueprint to a more perfect union, it was at this moment that libertarians began to see commonalities and move toward the tea party.

Even then, with premeditation… not unlike the politicians. All seeking to discover just how to harness this incredible energy to advance individual agendas. In the end, though, the tea party failed the ultimate litmus test for any self respecting libertarian – Ron Paul and the Republican Party.

This marriage of convenience between libertarians and the tea party quickly led to separation when most tea party members failed to embrace Paul’s 2012 presidential run, however, the tea party’s response to the Republican Party already had the nuptials on shaky grounds.

It is fair to say that, in the early days, most tea party members where skeptical of both political parties. At the same time, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Republican Party more closely resembled the values held by most. Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? Hello?

It was accepted early on that, America being a two party system, any chance of realizing change in this country would be better served through the Republican Party – the challenge of reshaping the values of the GOP being less daunting than going the third party route. Of course, looking in the rear view mirror three years later, that may have been a false analogy, but, then, hindsight is 20-20.

Yet, in failing the true measure of libertarianism, the stark differences between the tea party and libertarians could not be clearer. While there is no doubt that libertarians have broadened the scope of the tea party movement with a focus on individual liberty, there remains more that separates the two than unites them.

The tea party has always had great respect for authority and the rule of law, as opposed to looking for reasons to challenge it. It has always sought to be a part of something bigger than itself rather than to stand apart. It sees the greater good in America and looks to emphasize this, rather than dwell on it’s historical failures. In the end, the tea party desperately wants to feel optimistic about our future, instead of wallowing in pessimism over the many shortcomings that currently beset us.

The Cato analysis talks about how “most tea partiers have focused on fiscal, not social, issues — cutting spending, ending bailouts, reducing debt, and reforming taxes and entitlements — rather than discussing abortion or gay marriage. Even social conservatives and evangelicals within the tea party act like libertarians.”

While I agree that the social issues continue to diminish the resolve of this great awakening and the need to fall back on the fiscal libertarian issues cannot be more apparent, this alone is not the definition of the tea party or libertarians. And while the solutions to the challenges we face as a nation may eventual center around a third party, I can assure you it will not be a party that devotes most of it’s time and energy looking for reasons to exclude others.

Cross-Posted at Florida Political Press