In 2010, the Tea Party, that seemingly incoherent, non-descript movement that many scoffed at when it first appeared on the national scene a year earlier, achieved a form of legitimacy not realized by many of its predecessors. In electing members and sympathizers to the House of Representatives, the Senate, and to many state legislatures, the movement exceeded the aspirations and successes of the many third parties that have come and gone in the 234 years of America’s existence.
And yet, as many in the movement will claim, the Tea Party is not primarily a political party. Instead, it is a loose conglomeration of Americans who seek to change the way governments operate in the country, primarily at the national, but also at the state, and, presumably, even at the local level.
The main precepts of the movement are generally understood. Less government would be the mantra, with the specifics to include less government spending, less government regulation, and less government involvement in the affairs of everyday citizens. Government, for the Tea Party, works best when it works least, and especially when it spends least.
At its core, the Tea Party movement is another expression of the discontent that has developed at various times in the history of the unique experiment in governance that the country’s Constitution provides. That experiment, with its three separate and distinct branches of government, has always produced dissatisfying results for segments of the population, and, from time to time, those disgruntled segments have banded together in an effort to “fix” it.
And that, stripped of all the rhetoric, is really what the Tea Party is all about. The movement seeks to reform the system by severely restricting the power and authority of the governments that are the result of that system.
There’s an inherent incongruity in this effort, of course, however unapparent and even irrelevant that incongruity may be to Tea Party adherents.
The Constitution established the basis for the development of a system of governance in the first place, and it did so with the implicit intent of establishing exactly the system that is now in place. To be specific, the Constitution envisions a politically elected legislature comprised of two separate and distinct bodies: one with proportional representation, the other with disproportionate representation. The one with proportional representation (each member representing approximately the same number of residents) would turn over every two years, thereby giving the people the opportunity to change course quickly should the popular will so require.
The body with disproportionate representation (two members from each state, regardless of the population of each state) would only elect one-third of its membership every two years, thereby providing greater institutional consistency and less susceptibility to the whims of the electorate.
Meanwhile, the executive branch would be run by a president who would also be elected by the will of the people, albeit through an indirect election process whereby each state would determine how its proportionally-identified electors would cast their votes. Occasionally, as many as three times in the nation’s history, that result has been at odds with the actual popular vote of the people. But, again, that’s how the system was intended to operate, and so it has, anomalous results as recently as the 2000 presidential election notwithstanding.
The third branch of government, the judiciary, was set up to be independent of electoral politics, with judges appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, thereupon to serve for life (or until voluntary retirement).
Thus the Constitution envisioned a Supreme Court that would be above the will of the majority, uninfluenced by popular pressures and predilections. That the directives from that Court would occasionally, if not frequently, ruffle the feathers of the majority’s will was contemplated and even anticipated by those who drafted the law that is supreme over all others in the land.
So, what, from the Tea Party’s perspective has gone wrong?
The answer is that this elaborate system has not worked to the advocates’ liking. Through a vast array of legislative enactments, often sponsored by the president of the moment, and permitted on judicial review by the Court, the country has become top-heavy with government in most, if not all, phases of private life.
Thus, Tea Partiers will decry the size of government and the spending attendant to it, while reacting with great hostility to any suggestion that pet programs (Medicare, Social Security, and national defense in particular) need to be cut significantly (or even marginally). They hate the size of their government and the presumed wasteful spending that must exist within it, but they like the programs that the government (via the “system”) has established and that the government (again via the “system”) has been empowered to administer.
The dichotomy, indeed the logical inconsistency, in this picture is not accidental. Despite their alleged reverence for the founders’ intent, as expressed in the Constitution, many Tea Partiers are unfamiliar with that document’s specific provisions.
When tea party activist Christine O’Donnell (candidate for the Senate in Delaware) expressed bemusement at the thought that the concept of separation of church and state was contained in the Bill of Rights (it has long been so interpreted in the Constitution’s First Amendment), she reflected a basic ignorance of the Constitution that, while not unique to Tea Partiers, is all too typical of them.
In this respect, the Tea Party is not all that different from much of America. Most Americans are ignorant of their nation’s Constitutional provisions. Many Americans assume things are in the Constitution that are not (e.g. the ability of the president to declare war) and assume other things are not in the Constitution that are (e.g. the authority to impose taxes).
But the Tea Party is more outspoken about how far off course it believes the nation to be. Those beliefs may be heartfelt and well-intentioned. And the change the movement seeks may well bear close consideration. But without a thorough understanding of what the Constitution provides and how the system it envisioned actually works, cries for reform from the Tea Party movement ultimately cannot and must not be given credence.