Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Tea Party And The Politics Of Limits

Tea Party folk across the nation and in Connecticut tend to be more active politically than, say, sunshine patriots. What has been said here often enough bears repeating: The Tea Party is not a party; it is a movement grounded in the notion, not at all un-American, of a politics of limits.

By way of example, the U.S. Constitution marks a limit, as does the Bill of Rights or any statutory law. Right reason marks a limit. The laws of nature and of nature’s God mark a limit.

In declaring in the First Amendment that Congress is not vested with the power to bar political speech, the Bill of Rights sets a governing limit, a boundary that even ambitious politicians, lawyers and judges should not unthinkingly cross. And, before the letters start pouring in -- yes indeed, I do realize there are exceptions to the rule. There is no rule on earth, cardinal John Henry Newman said, to which there is not at least one exception. However, it is important to understand that an exception proves the rules; it does not invalidate the rule, whatever the anti-hypocrisy crowd may say.

A politics of limits is not the beau ideal of progressives, who like to soar above limits and are quite willing to invest the executive office with an extra-constitutional populist authorization to do so, limits be damned.

Alexander Hamilton is known for having rather strong views on what he called in The Federalist Number 70 “energy in the executive.” You cannot execute the laws without having at your disposal the power and the means to do so. Hamilton favored a strong executive to keep the peace, protect the nation against foreign attack and to apply laws steadily and fairly, so that property would be protected against “irregular and high handed combinations.” But Hamilton was arguing his case within the confines of the Constitution and the established laws of man and God. The nation’s leaders at this point were not impertinent enough to imagine a freedom outside of rational limits. John Lennon arrived the United States long after its formation, and his song “Imagine” would have seemed a declaration of anarchy to any son of the Enlightenment.

Imagine there is no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only s

There is a shot of Lennon in most modern progressives for whom the sky is the limit. One thinks of the boundless energy of a Governor Dannel Malloy or a U.S. Senator Dick Blumenthal, the first consumer protection Congressman the Republic has produced, and one involuntarily shudders. Is it not possible that government may on occasion be used for illicit purposes, even by saintly attorney generals or newborn senators? Though government is good when it accomplishes good purposes, may it not be used to produce bad ends from ill-conceived good intentions? One thinks of President Barack Obama refashioning the nation’s insurance industry – which produces one seventh of the nation’s gross national product -- and one offers up frantic prayers to the Almighty: God save us from the impudence of the imprudent.

The hot disdain showered by progressives on Tea Party folk is a measure of their different views concerning a politics of limits. The whole point of the Gadsden Flag, a Tea Party irregular explained to me, lies in the coiled rattler and the legend “Don’t Tread On Me.” The flag presents dramatically a limit of endurance, a border to tolerance. If you believe that the provisions of the Constitution are more important than the re-election of Senator Blunderbuss – Senator Blunderbuss assuredly does not -- you will see in every sentence and phrase of the Constitution a coiled rattlesnake hissing its warning, “Don’t tread on me.”

The presence in Connecticut and the nation of the Tea Party is a fulfillment of Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this sense only is the Tea Party reactionary. When you sit on a chair, you are proving Newton’s Third Law, for the downward pressure your body puts on the seat is met by an equal and opposite upward pressure the chair exerts on your body. Without this equilibrium, the chair would not hold your weight. The same bi-polarity occurs in legal and ethical spheres. “There be things twain,” says the fairy tale, “things you must do, and things you must not do.” When a necessary limit is crossed, you may expect a reaction; this is the enduring message of all Greek Drama.

“Government,” George Washington said, “is force.” That is why he and others of the founders of the Republic created a Constitution that serves as a limit to power and force. It is the excessive progressive force in modern politics that has called out a Tea Party reaction. But the countervailing reaction ought not to be dismissed as only reactionary. It aims to be restorative – through political means. But to exert even a restorative force in politics, you must win office; outside the circle of those who have attained office, force is diminished.

And it is here that a word in time may be helpful. Opposition to excessive force is what the ancients would have called “a good in itself,” a self-evident good. But opposition alone cannot establish or restore the public good lost by the inept or malevolent exercise of force. To be a force for political good, the good of the whole polis, you must engage actively in politics. You must use your little force to see to it that good men and women occupy seats of power. It is not enough for Tea Party folk to declare their principles negatively by opposing limp Republicans who fail to meet their standards. They must enforce their principles positively by electing to office women and men who, while sitting in different pews, worship at the same general altar.
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