If anything is clear at this point in the electoral season, it’s that the Tea Party movement is a significant force, and that anyone who hopes to understand American politics needs to understand it.
My interest in the Tea Party comes from the policy issues that are my particular interest — the “Culture of Life” issues, primarily abortion and marriage. To me, these are the issues on which Catholics are called to devote their greatest energy.
And I am wondering, as the Tea Party gets going, whether we’re invited.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. No party really exists for me in the United States. My politics tends to be closer to what in Europe and Latin America would be termed “Christian Democracy”. So I don’t have a partisan interest in the outcome here.
I also have to admit that, even though I am not a Tea Partier myself, I am sympathetic to their general goals. I tend to favor small, limited government solutions to problems, which is a practical application of the Catholic social teaching about subsidiarity. I view with abhorrence the current culture of “honest graft” that is at the heart of modern American government, and which is so clearly typified by the mess of a State Legislature we have here in New York. And I am very impressed by the citizen activism that the Tea Party has energized, and their effective viral style of non-organized organization.
I have some reservations, though, because the Tea Party agenda is silent on Culture of Life issues, and because of the current state of thinking in the leadership of both major political parties.
It’s sad to say, but with a few notable exceptions (State Sen. Ruben Diaz, for instance), the Democratic Party, its core of activists, and its leaders have become the enemies of the Culture of Life. Name an anti-life, anti-marriage initiative and you’ll find it on the agenda of the Democratic Party. Prospective Democratic candidates are told, sometimes implicitly and many times brutally frankly, that they cannot advance in office unless they are pro-abortion. Once in office, they relentlessly appoint officials and promote activities that are destructive to the Culture of Life. All this, from the party that professes to be looking out for the poor and powerless. It has become quite clear that, at least as far as the national Democratic Party is concerned, people who are seriously committed to Culture of Life issues are not welcome at the festivities unless they are willing to overlook their principles.
That leaves the other guys. The Republican Party, at least nationally (and much less so here in New York), has been sympathetic to Culture of Life issues, and has given us some significant victories. A pro-life position has certainly helped the GOP, giving it a clear electoral margin among those for whom the issue matters, and giving them access to an energetic base of religious-minded voters. But as Culture of Life voters become more and more associated with the GOP only, we increasingly run the risk of being taken for granted and shoved aside in favor of the flavor of the month.
And that is precisely what is going on. As GOP mandarins sense the possibility of large gains in the upcoming election thanks to the Tea Party movement, Culture of Life issues are being pushed to the back burner or even being dismissed outright. For example, GOP Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has suggested that we accept a “moratorium” on pressing for the defense of marriage and human life. Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the GOP’s effort to re-take the US Senate, has openly suggested that the party’s position on abortion is alienating independents, and should be muted.
The apparent advice from many in the GOP leadership to Culture of Life voters is, “Sit down, be quiet, and help us win elections. Then maybe we’ll talk.” Some allies.
But now there’s an alternative for us. Each of the major Tea Party candidates who have won primaries recently appears to be pro-life, and that hasn’t seemed to hurt their electoral chances much. Some of their candidates are eccentric, but after so many years of corrupt professionals, maybe eccentric amateurs are worth a try. I suspect that most of the people who are active in the Tea Party movement are also Culture of Life supporters, but are just focusing their energies on fiscal issues right now. And, in general, the kind of candidates being supported by the Tea Party appear to me to be likely to support Culture of Life issues, once they are in office. Over the past few years, it has clearly been most helpful for our issues to support candidates who are more politically conservative across the board, and those are the kinds of people associated with the Tea Party.
The reality is this. It would be best if Culture of Life voters could find a home in both major parties. But we have been effectively ejected from the Democratic Party, and we have been only grudgingly welcomed and suffered in the Republican Party. The Tea Party seems to offer a new dynamic, presenting us with the possibility of an alliance with voters and candidates who are amenable to our positions and who may prove to be potent supporters.
So, I’m not sure if we’ve been explicitly invited, but I also think they won’t mind too much if we cautiously crash the Tea Party and see what happens next.