The tea party movement celebrates its fifth anniversary this month. Inspired by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli’s off-the-cuff tirade against a plan to bail out underwater mortgages, the modern tea party turned into a vibrant, diffuse protest movement directed against the growth of government in general and against the Affordable Care Act in particular.
Its members’ energy and organization are widely credited with helping the Republicans wrest control of the House of Representatives from the Democrats in 2010. But even in 2010, the tea party movement arguably set back the causes of small government and individual liberty by nominating for statewide offices ideologically pure conservatives who ran weak and ultimately unsuccessful campaigns that substantially underperformed other Republicans. Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Ken Buck in Colorado all lost Senate races that Republicans had been expected to win.
Since the 2010 election, the movement has enjoyed still less success. In 2012, President Barack Obama secured re-election, despite the weak and still-flagging national economy, and Republicans again failed to win the Senate.
And substantively, in all the ways that matter, the tea party has been losing. The burden of government is heavier today than it was in 2009; our national debt has almost doubled; our economy has every year grown less free; and the Affordable Care Act is still the law of the land, including the parts of it that the president has unilaterally decided not to enforce.
If they hope to revive their fortunes, tea party conservatives and their friends should learn some lessons from the first and greatest of all political consultants, Niccolo Machiavelli. There are three things they should learn from that crafty, old Florentine patriot.
The first is that the people like spirited and bold action. Or, as Machiavelli wrote in his “Discourses on Livy,” “When gain is seen in the things that are put before the people, even though there is loss concealed underneath, and when it appears spirited, though there is the ruin of the republic concealed underneath, it will always be easy to persuade the multitude of it.”
The president’s promises that the Affordable Care Act would provide universal health care and that it would save the average family $2,500 per year made the plan popular, both claims are untrue, as conservatives said at the time and the Congressional Budget Office confirmed recently.
If small-government conservatives want to be popular, it will not be enough to point to the failures of the party of government. To the partisans of big government, every failed government program is a reason to propose a newer, bigger, more expensive program — because they are sure that the last one would have worked, if it had only been bigger and more expensive.
The movement for small government and individual liberty will never succeed if it is only a negative movement, directed against the actions of others. Friends of individual liberty need to rediscover the ability to show the boldness of a movement to restore freedom and individual responsibility and to remind the voters that, over the long haul, free markets produce the most sustained economic growth.
In that same work, Machiavelli also notes curtly that “a multitude without a head is useless.” He means that not even large numbers of citizens — not even if they constitute a majority — can accomplish anything in politics without leaders who can stand at their head and speak for them.
Though some national political figures, such as Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, are popular among many conservatives who identify with the tea party, the movement has resisted integration into the two-party system and has no true leaders. Such independence, however desirable and ideologically attractive to people of libertarian disposition, inevitably limits the movement’s ability to achieve its concrete, political objectives.
Finally, says Machiavelli, “the mode of renewing” republics is “to lead them back toward their beginnings.” Here is advice that small government, tea party conservatives might seem to know instinctively: It is a common article of faith among tea partyers that we should try to undo the constitutional changes wrought by the New Deal and return to the original, small-government understanding of the Constitution.
But that is not precisely what Machiavelli means. True reform — reform that really renews a republic — cannot be accomplished by a literal restoration of long-dead practices; it requires instead bold political action that re-inspires and re-animates the people with the original passion for liberty that inflamed them at the republic’s birth.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.