Unprincipled Conservatism: The Richmond Tea Party

Brady and I went to the Richmond Tea Party today at Kanawha Plaza. It was interesting, with turnout in the thousands. The events were sold as the start of something big in the conservative movement. They may, in fact, end up becoming just that. But I think the whole thing smells.

First, the not so bad observations. There's obviously a lot of concern about Obama's program of stimulus spending, bailouts, and more. These expenditures are going to burden the next generation with even more debt. It is right to object and organize resistance. And they claim that this is a non-partisan mission; both parties have failed them.

That said, one questions the timing of these protests. For the past eight years, the presidential candidate conservatives put in office twice expanded the size and scope of government more than any president in history. He created a new entitlement program (the prescription drug benefit), started two massively expensive and destructive wars, and initiated the bailouts of big businesses that Obama is merely continuing. He even created an entirely new department of the executive branch. This was all accomplished by further sinking the country into trillions in debt. Where was the conservative outrage then?

One begins to wonder whether these conservatives have any problem with big government per se, and only with Democrats. I mean, everybody was complaining about Obama's "socialism" and how he wants to "redistribute wealth". I mean, clearly he does - but no more than Bush. And what money is Obama handing out? Tax credits for homebuyers? Bush handed out plenty of money - but he actually mailed checks to people. Of course, these conservatives would object that they didn't support Bush's handouts, either - so the only question is why now?

The answer, I believe, is that this is not about a popular reaction to political events of late. Instead, this is a coordinated political stunt designed to build a conservative moveon.org, if you will. The investors are the corporate lobbyists and arch-conservative organizations - both groups who like the debate framed in the convenient, Fox News vs. CNBC style that everybody can sell advertising with. You had only to go there and see the many professional tents set up, the impeccable security detail, the fancy custom banners printed just for this brand new organization run by "people like you and me" to see that there was money here. I think this was an investment in a new conservative political infrastructure, reacting to the events of this past election. They want Ron Paul's populist style with Barack Obama's organizational saavy and marketing without substance.

Much of the rhetoric of the event sounded like Paul's - stop socialism and cut spending, reduce the debt burden, stop harming the productive class, etc. However, they conveniently forgot a key pillar in Paul's agenda: his anti-war stance. I heard only one mention of the bloody and expensive wars going on now, and it was only to mention a soldier returning to Afghanistan to get some cheap flaghumper applause. Paul was able to articulate a principled position that unified a non-interventionist foreign policy with a non-interventionist domestic policy. But none of the speakers even mentioned the spending on war, on empire, on sweetheart deals for military contractors. To ignore an issue that big - especially when talking about spending - is nothing short of completely unprincipled.

While the teabaggers selectively copy much of Paul's style, they are really trying to build a conservative answer to the Obama campaign. Nobody in politics can help but marvel at the political machine Obama's campaign was able to assemble. How he was able to inspire people to take action, coordinate that action online, and deliver a consistent message of change that he has, to date, not been expected to deliver on is a real political holy grail. Obama is the essence of image without substance; to achieve a consistently manufacturable campaign like his would help cement the conservative movement's position in American politics.

And so you have the manufacturing of a mass movement on terms most favorable to mainstream conservatism. Throw the s-word at people, mention God and family values enough times to feel self-righteous, and they'll do the work of campaigning for you. And it could work; people love to feel like they're fighting the power. Just sell that to them in the constant escalation of trickery that is political marketing.

And I have to say in conclusion: the speakers were uniformly atrocious. More talk radio show jockeys than you could throw a stick at - I don't come to a political rally to hear some dumb ass DJ. And everybody evoking God - God this, God that. Or whining about "the children". The awkward thing was that, from the look of the signs, it was clear that fiscal policy, not Christian values, was what brought this crowd out in the rain together. Finally, the fact that they excluded the speaker from the Central Virginia Campaign for Liberty at the last minute - somebody who could have really articulated a larger conservative agenda than the shallow one promulgated at the tea party - was quite revealing. If I were Ron Paul, I would take this as a shot across the bow - lots of Koch money involved, and he should know all about that.

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Written on Thursday, April 16, 2009