Over the past 14 months, our political debate has been transformed into an argument between the heirs of two fundamental schools of political thought, the Founders’ and the progressives’. The Founders stood for the expansion of liberty, the progressives for the expansion of government.
It’s an argument that has been going on for a century but was largely dormant during the quarter-century of low-inflation economic growth that followed the Ronald Reagan tax cuts. It’s been raised again by the expand-government policies of the Obama administration and Democratic congressional leaders.
Those policies, thoroughly in line with the progressive tradition, have been advanced by liberal elites in government, media, think tanks, and academia. The opposition, roughly in line with the Founders’ tradition, has been led by the non-elites who spontaneously flocked to tea parties and town halls. Republican politicians have been scrambling to lead these protestors.
The conservative rebellions of the late 1970s and middle 1990s were focused on taxes. The tea partiers are focusing on the expansion of government — and its threat to the independence of citizens.
The first mention of tea parties came in February 2009 from CNBC’s Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, when he asked “if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages. How many of you people want to pay your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” Then he called for a Chicago tea party.
This struck a chord. Tea partiers began to dress in 18th century costumes — political re-enactors — and brandished the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. They declared their independence by opposing progressive policies that encourage dependence on government.
Progressives have always assumed that people need safety nets and welcome dependence on government. The public’s clear rejection of the Democratic health-care bills has shown that this assumption is unwarranted. Americans today prefer independence to dependence on government, just as they did 200 years ago.
All this was supposed to have been consigned to the past long ago. The progressives of the early 1900s — presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and New Republic founder Herbert Croly, for instance — argued that in an industrial era of mass production and giant businesses, ordinary people were helpless and needed government’s guiding hand. It would be more efficient, they argued, for centralized, disinterested experts to administer national institutions than to observe the Constitution’s horse-and-buggy limits on government power and to let chaotic markets operate freely. The Founders were out of date.