Viewed from abroad, the existence of a vibrant conservative alliance is one of the most distinctive features of the American political scene. The rise of such a movement, beginning in the middle years of the 20th century, accompanied and facilitated the rise of the Republican party.
The first element in this conservative coalition was the think tank. Free-market institutes are now so ingrained into the conservative coalition that it is hard to imagine life without them. But, not so long ago, the Left, entrenched as it was in universities, dominated the intellectual sphere.
Until the 1950s, conservatives lacked a philosophy. They had instincts, beliefs, policies, but nothing that could properly be called an ideology. This changed as think tanks began to play the role on the right that universities were playing on the left. Think-tankers didn’t just write the script, or at least parts of the script; many of their scriptwriters become producers and directors when the Republicans took office and looked to fill their administrations.
It is hard to overstate the impact that small-government institutes have had on American politics. I am not just talking of the great foundations in D.C.: Heritage, Cato, the American Enterprise Institute, and the like. Every state in the union now has at least one significant conservative think tank, many of them — the NCPA in Texas, Hoover in California — with as much national influence as the Washington titans. Wherever there is a legislature, there is a free-market think tank applying the doctrines of Hayek and Rothbard to local conditions.
Such organizations have given the Right a philosophy every bit as internally consistent and comprehensive as the other side’s. During the first half of the 20th century, there was a widespread belief that intellect and progressive politics went hand-in-hand. Conservatism was not an ideology, but an amalgam of instincts: patriotism, religious faith, distrust of officialdom, and so on. This made it, in the most literal sense, a reactionary movement: a response to someone else’s doctrine, not a doctrine in its own right.
Of course, many on the left still think this way, and see conservative intellectuals as class traitors. But this view no longer strikes a chord with the wider electorate, and serves only to make its advocates seem remote and self-righteous.
While think tanks played an important part in the air war, there was a ground war to be fought, too. And it is here that the conservative movement has most impressively come into its own. The Republican party could never have succeeded had it not been surrounded and supported by organizations that were ideologically committed to kindred causes: gun clubs, home-school associations, local radio stations, evangelical churches. These bodies didn’t simply provide foot soldiers: They were able to advance the agenda in a way that a politician couldn’t easily do without coming across as self-interested.
What’s more, these organizations recognized their shared interests. The last time I was in D.C., I spoke at the Wednesday Meeting run by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Here, gathered under one roof, was Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy”: vaster, indeed, than I had ever imagined. Think-tankers rubbed shoulders with congressional aides, contrarian columnists with right-wing academics, Ayn Rand devotees with anti-health-reform campaigners, Republican candidates with sympathetic businessmen. Although there were many ideological and stylistic differences among those present, they were all there to advance a common cause. I kept thinking of Bismarck’s remark about the German socialists: “We march separately, but we fight together.”
The tea-party movement is the latest manifestation of this tradition: a popular fronde that is unaffiliated but conservative, political but skeptical toward political parties, angry but focused. You occasionally read that the tea parties were synthetic, that the crowds had somehow been artificially put together, that the rage was fabricated. In fact, the tea-party phenomenon is an example of that rare beast, a genuinely spontaneous popular movement. One of its founders told me that it had started life as a 22-person conference call, and had grown within weeks to an army of thousands.
There are limits, of course, to what such a movement can achieve. It has no legislators and can pass no laws. It has scant financial resources. Indeed, it has so far failed in its two main aims: to defeat the Obama health-care bill, and to reduce the levels of taxation and debt. But legislation takes place against a background of national debate and consensus, and this is what the tea partiers have helped to shift.
Just as there are limits to what a popular movement can achieve, so there are limits to what a political party can achieve. The tea-party movement is nourished by a very American creed, namely that governments don’t have the answers, that reform comes from below, that people are wiser than their leaders. By taking their message directly to the streets, the tea partiers changed minds in a way that politicians couldn’t. They have, in short, created an atmosphere in which candidates opposed to Big Government can win. Whether such candidates succeed, and whether they are able to effect a substantive change in public policy, will depend at least in part on what kind of relationship they retain with the wider movement.
— Daniel Hannan is author of The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America, from which this is an excerpt. © 2010 by Daniel Hannan. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.