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Respected Princetonian and adjunct Cato scholar Tim Lee has made a few revealing comments in the wake of liberaltarian duo Brink Lindsey’s and Will Wilkinson’s departure from Cato. Alas, they’re revealing only insofar as they dramatize how deeply confused even extremely smart people have become about conservatism in general and tea party conservatism in particular. Part of this confusion, I freely admit, is a consequence of the bad habits developed by too many Republicans at a time when the GOP was controlled, if only in the popular imagination, by the forces of conservatism. But I’m not sure anything excuses this:
Is the Tea Party “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics?” I think it’s helpful here to unpack the concept of “anti-big government,” because the right uses it in a peculiar and rather perverse fashion.
In the conservative (and fusionist) worldview, government activities are evaluated using a simplistic “size of government” metric that treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used. This has some unfortunate results. It means that cutting children’s health care spending is just as good as cutting a dollar from subsidies for wealthy corporations. And since wealthy corporations typically have lobbyists and poor children don’t, the way this works out in practice is that conservative politicians staunchly oppose the former while letting the latter slide.
Worse, mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass. Conservatives vociferously (and correctly) oppose giving the FCC expanded power over the Internet, but they actively supported the NSA’s much more comprehensive and intrusive scheme of domestic surveillance. Conservatives support a massive expansion of government power at our southern border to restrict the freedom of Mexican migrants. They seem unconcerned by the fact that we have more people in government-run prisons than any other nation on Earth.
Any analysis of the tea party that takes “the right” as its monolithic point of departure is foredoomed, and Lee’s dizzying remarks show why. To begin with, there is simply nothing in “the conservative worldview” (whatever precisely that may be) that “treats every dollar of government spending as equally bad, regardless of how it’s used.” You can tell this is true because “mainstream conservatives give programs involving the military and law enforcement a free pass.” Only, that’s not right either, because mainstream conservatives, unlike the tiny neocon cabal that seized power during the Bush years, are against blank-check nation-building and unsustainable public pensions. Confusing!
Worse (as Lee would put it), mainstream conservatives will laugh in the face of anyone who tells them that they believe a dollar spent on midnight basketball is “equally bad” as a dollar spent on implementing Obamacare. Mindbogglingly, conservatives will even disagree with each other on which federal expenditures (EPA funding! Fannie and Freddie bailouts! Foreign aid for birth control!) are worse than others.
It’s true that in the wake of 9/11 conservatives have grown more tolerant of expansive domestic surveillance powers. For the same reason, they’re disinclined to champion the ‘freedom of movement’ of undocumented noncitizens. But which conservatives are they, again, who remain “unconcerned” about the number of noncitizens committing crimes and occupying space in our prisons? What’s more, which conservatives blithely or blissfully accept high crime rates (crime, after all, being where prisoners come from)? I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank. Mainstream conservatives are much more inclined to view high incarceration rates as a grim necessity in a degenerate world.
Which brings us to the tea partiers. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to view all government spending as suspect. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to oppose Big Brother government. It’s tea partiers who are more likely than mainstream conservatives to question the whole logic and effectiveness of our criminal justice system. In part, that’s because tea partiers are more open to historically paleoconservative and paleolibertarian ideas than mainstream conservatives. One could argue that this makes them, technically speaking, more conservative than mainstream conservatives, but that’s hardly relevant here. What is relevant is that the tea party really is “the most dynamic anti-big government political movement in modern American politics,” and that Lee’s attempt to “unpack” this fact out of existence at once manages to misrepresent and confound the character of contemporary conservatism while leaving us more convinced than ever that tea partiers are serious about taking on big government.