Michael Gerson: Tea party extremes steer voters from Republicans

07/10/2014 4:53 PM

07/10/2014 4:53 PM

A few recent developments have revealed the tea party temperament in its most distilled, potent form.

Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin called for the impeachment of President Barack Obama on the theory that his border policies are “the last straw that makes the battered wife say, ‘no mas.’” Palin demands Obama’s ouster on the theory that “enough is enough.”

Republicans who disapprove of this plan, according to Palin, lack “cojones,” and true conservatives should “vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment.”

At the same time, failed tea party Senate candidate Chris McDaniel says his primary opponent, Thad Cochran, “stole” the election — a serious charge made without serious evidence — and equates overturning his 7,700-vote loss with preserving “the torch of liberty.”

The tea party movement, of course, is more than the sum of its Palins. Both major political parties have and need a base of enthusiastic populists. And some of the Republican Party’s brighter policy lights, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah, emerged from tea party backgrounds. But the movement has a characteristic tone and approach.

It is often apocalyptic. The torch of liberty sputters. The country is on the verge of tyranny. Yet, without apparent cognitive dissonance, the movement’s goals are often utopian. The nation’s problems can be solved by passing 10 amendments to the Constitution or by impeaching the president. And those who don’t share a preference for maximal (sometimes delusional) solutions — those who talk of incrementalism or compromise — are granted particular scorn.

The tea party temperament is often accompanied by an easily reducible political theory. “The word ‘education,'” McDaniel has argued, “is not in the Constitution. Neither are the phrases “health care,” “retirement assistance,” “disaster relief,” “food safety” or “cancer research.” And there goes much of the modern state.

These habits of mind — desperation, utopianism, purifying zeal and ideological simplicity — have their uses in history. But they can’t be called conservative.

This is one theme of a careful, instructive essay by Philip Wallach and Justus Myers in National Affairs that ought to be required beach reading for conservatives. The authors describe the conservative temperament — humility, an appreciation for what is worthy in our society, a preference for incremental reform, a distrust of abstraction — and contrast them to the “misguided radicals of the left and right.”

Progressives, in their view, have created complex and ungovernable public systems by “doubling down on centralization and technocracy.” But “some on the right seek to break with the past in a very different manner, repudiating 80 years of institutional development and reinventing America as a nation that rejects the substantive role for regulation or a social safety net. Though they are often labeled as ‘conservatives,’ their ambitions, and especially their rhetoric, emphasize the need for a sharp break with many features of our current governing institutions.” The alternative is a practical conservatism, which displays a “deep interest and knowledge of our starting place and the plausible means of making improvements.”

Because Obama’s progressivism is exhausted and increasingly discredited, Americans will give the GOP another look.

They will be either impressed or frightened by what they see. A party that is genuinely excited about conservative anti-poverty proposals, the child tax credit and other reforms rather than impeachment and the abolition of modern government might even be judged worthy of the presidency again.

The most urgent requirement for conservative success is the recovery of a conservative temperament.

To reach Michael Gerson, send email to michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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