But the Tea Party has been very unusual for an American populist movement. It has not been focused on soaking the rich, as left-wing populists always have been. It has not even been primarily focused on reducing the tax burden on the middle class, as right-wing populists usually are. Rather, the Tea Party has focused on restraining government. It originated in outrage about federal bailouts, and has directed its energies toward pulling back the cost and reach of the state. It has asked for fewer government giveaways, not more. It has even given voice to a tight-money populism, criticizing the Federal Reserve for inviting inflation — a far cry from populists of old. And the Tea Party has also been intensely focused on recovering the U.S. Constitution, and especially its limits on government power (and therefore on the public’s power) — another very unusual goal for a populist movement.
These substantive demands of the Tea Party have been at least as important as its populist form. But that form, and the energy it has brought to the effort to resist Obamaism, risks causing us to draw the wrong lesson from the past few years. Populism as such does not define the proper response to the rise of technocratic administration, and cannot be the essence of the defense of our constitutional order against a resurging progressivism.