Liberals often scoff when conservatives, supporting the principle of federalism, say that most people care more about government close to home than they do about government in Washington. But down in southern Alabama at least, Tea Partiers are acting in perfect concert with those conservative principles.
The Tea Party in Alabama's coastal counties, Mobile and Baldwin, is called the "Common Sense Campaign." The name is appropriate. In the four months I've been back down here, I've been extraordinarily impressed by how active it is. Regular meetings, weekly or near-weekly. Rallies. Speeches. The most active thread of email messages I think I've ever seen. And, most impressively, active letter-writing and phone calling, backed by energetic research, about fairly complicated issues that aren't high on national radar screens -- issues where most of the governmental decisions are made at the state or local level, exactly as federalist principle would suggest.
Three issues in particular are receiving the bulk of their attention. (The idea in this column is not to explore those issues in depth, but just to explain the Tea Partiers' interests.) The first is the growing burden that Medicaid is putting on state budgets, a burden that will get almost geometrically worse when Obamacare is fully implemented. Former gubernatorial candidate, state senator, and state board of education member Bradley Byrne has been spreading this message, along with a number of creative suggestions for effective, fair-minded cost savings. What's admirable is the follow-up the activists have shown, with highly focused letter-writing to state officials, plans for seminars and rallies, and calls to officials in other states to find out how they are handling such issues. Related to the Medicaid issue is Alabama's decision to go ahead and start setting up the state health insurance exchanges as mandated by Obamacare -- a decision the Tea Partiers abhor. These are not simple topics, but the local activists are tackling them with gusto.
The second issue is educational. The Tea Party is on fire in opposition to state adoption of the national Common Core Standards, which are advertised as "voluntary" but which the Obama Administration already has begun co-opting by tying federal funding to their adoption. Not that there is anything wrong with standards -- but Alabama already, while almost nobody was looking, had adopted high educational standards and vaulted from the bottom to the middle of the pack (by various measures) among states in terms of educational performance. The problem the Tea Partiers see with national standards is exactly their potential for federal co-optation, and from co-optation to various abuses of the "politically correct," socially liberal variety conservatives always fight against. It would be better, say the activists, to keep improving standards on our own -- and to publicize Alabama's high standards -- than to specifically affiliate with a national movement, no matter how well intentioned (Jeb Bush is a prime mover), that quite clearly has the potential to be abused down the line.
Finally, some of the locals are particularly exercised about something called "Agenda 21," which is a vague-sounding United Nations wedge aimed, the activists believe, at opening the door to massive regulations, land grabs, and various aspects of one-worldism. The activists are probably right to worry. What's most interesting is that the local Tea Partiers are most focused not on some vague international threat, but on specifically how, if at all, Agenda 21 will affect local or state land-use policies and zoning. Again, this is not Chicken Little, sky-is-falling sort of alarmism, but instead a sensibly focused example of watchdogs who know what they are watching for.
These aren't the only issues, of course, that members of the Common Sense Campaign care about. They are rightly just as exercised at federal overspending and other outrages as are any of the national Tea Party groups (and conservatives in general). But in their principled localism, the CSC members uphold some of the greatest intellectual and attitudinal traditions of modern conservatism/classic liberalism. Their example is a heartening thing to observe.