Friday, August 19, 2011

The Tea Party and "Republican Virtue"

The Tea Party proclaims that it is the embodiment of the American desire to return to ideals of the founders of the United States. While strict constitutionalism is a common position of the various self-proclaimed Tea Partiers, the founding generation in fact argued quite a bit about what the Constitution meant. But there was a more fundamental concept that the founders of the United States did largely agree upon: the one I noted in my previous post, "republican virtue."

The essence of that quality was selflessness in politics, a concern not with personal interests but a devotion to the public good. As Gordon Wood puts it in his classic work, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, "The eighteenth-century mind was thoroughly convinced that a popularly based government 'cannot be supported without Virtue.'"

Wood tells us in Empire of Liberty that the founding generation of Americans believed that "republics had to hold themselves together from the bottom up, ultimately, from their citizens' willingness to take up arms to defend their country and to sacrifice their private desires for the sake of the public good--from their 'disinterestedness,' which was a popular synonym for virtue."

Essential to this concept of the "public good" was the understanding of the interdependence of citizens:
Republicanism, with its emphasis on devotion to the transcendent public good, logically presumed a legislature in which various groups in the society would realize 'the necessary dependence and connection' each had upon the others.
There is, in this mentality, no devotion to any particular policy outcome. The devotion is to the general welfare, and a respect for the views of others in reaching an understanding of what the public good is.

It is hard to reconcile the uncompromising spirit of the Tea Party with this mindset. Take, for example, this expression of Tea Party fury over the debt ceiling deal:
I do not want to cut a deal with the people who wish to enslave me. I do not want to cut a deal with those who would take the greatness of America and flush it down the sewer. I do not want to cut a deal with those who think I only live to serve the state.
There is no "disinterestedness" here--only a single-minded determination to achieve a specific policy result at any cost, and the demonization of those with whom the author disagrees (the "Obama regime" and Republicans who "sold us out").

When we look at the state of our politics over the last eight months (since the newly-arrived members of Congress started asserting their influence), it resembles nothing more than what the revolutionary generation saw as the consequence of the lack of republican virtue:
Without some portion of this generous principle, anarchy and confusion would immediately ensue, the jarring interests of individuals, regarding themselves only, and indifferent to the welfare of others, would still further heighten the distressing scene, and with the assistance of the selfish passions, it would end in the ruin and subversion of the state.
Revisiting today this concept of republican virtue is a useful reminder of the foundational premises that lie beneath the structure created by the American Constitution. Wood tells us that the founders believed that "an equality of condition was essential for republicanism.... All took for granted that a society could not long remain republican if a tiny minority controlled most of the wealth and the bulk of the population remained dependent servants or poor landless laborers."

The great irony today is that these self-proclaimed guardians of the founding principles are putting their most fervent efforts into preserving precisely the condition that the founders themselves felt would lead to the collapse of a republican system. In their day, though not in ours, "it was commonly understood that 'the exorbitant wealth of individuals' had a 'most baneful influence' on the maintenance of republican governments and 'therefore should be carefully guarded against.'"

It is in this context that we should think about Warren Buffett's much discussed op-ed in this past Monday's New York Times. Buffet concludes clearly and unequivocally with a selfless call for "My friends and I" who "have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress" to be taxed. "It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice."

In rising above his personal interest, and that of his economic class, Buffett exhibits the kind of disinterestedness the founders believed essential to self-government. President Obama, in his calls this week for members of Congress to rise above party for the good of the country and in his willingness to cut programs near and dear to Democrats, has done the same.

The ones standing in the way are the Tea Partiers, who in their ignorance of the actual political values of the founders, violate those values every day with their extremism and uncompromising posturing.

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