The mainstream media notwithstanding, there is no denying the enormous impact the Tea Party move-ment has had on American politics since 2009. No grassroots movement has risen so quickly, so spontaneously, and changed the national political narrative so rapidly in recent memory. Despite that success, the question of the Tea Party’s long-term impact on American government remains open. The movement is still young, evolving, struggling to define itself, and learning to play presidential politics for the first time. The Tea Partiers in Congress and at the local and state levels are only just starting to have a short-term impact since being sworn in last year.
But the focus of the movement should always be on how to have a long-term impact. Decades from now, those of us who were there at the beginning and those who engaged in the political process for the first time as part of the movement should be able to see real, fundamental change. This systemic change is necessary to turn back the clock on another grassroots movement that more than a century ago set out to remake America.
In the late 1890s, the Progressive movement arose from the middle and working classes, with deep concerns about transparency and accountability in government. They were for the most part ordinary Americans concerned with workers’ rights and abuse of power by corporations. At the time of its origins, the Progressive movement was local, built from the ground up, with no real national leaders, but there were common themes.
It was a reform movement that was authentic and spontaneous, seeking to give voice to the plight of the working class and working toward fundamental change on a broad range of issues, from politics to industry to women’s rights. There was deep distrust of political parties, and well-grounded concern that railroad and oil companies were buying undue influence with political bosses and elected officials to put corporate interests before those of the American people.
In a relatively short amount of time, between 1890 and 1920, the Progressives fundamentally changed not just American government, but American society as well. Confronted with real corruption in politics, and with terrible conditions in virtually every industry (think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle), their mistaken solution was more government. Government was to be empowered to make reform happen, and so under the Progressives, the government’s role in regulating commerce and industry expanded dramatically, with the formation of the SEC and FDA and other bureaucracies and commissions. The Progressive reforms gave more power to unions, improved urban conditions, and won new protections for workers. Many of these reforms, like anti-trust laws, child labor laws, and sanitation codes were needed and today remain part of American life. There were electoral reforms as well, aimed at breaking the party bosses’ hold over the nominating process. With Australian ballots, direct primaries, and direct election of Senators, the entire process by which officials at all levels were nominated and elected was changed. As the nation grew, so did the impact of the Progressive movement, founded on the premise that government’s role in our daily lives should be more robust.
But the Progressive movement was rooted in two fundamental errors: an unshakable faith that gov-ernment was a force for good and a naïve belief that the humanity running government was not flawed. It forgot the words of James Madison, that men are not angels and that government must ultimately control itself. The Progressive movement and its reforms demonstrate the ultimate law of unintended consequences as it gave rise to the bureaucratic state and unaccountable elected officials. (Despite their flaws, and they were myriad, the party bosses had kept elected officials in check by enforcing what were essentially term limits.) The first era of Progressivism gave rise to a second era of Progressivism, and quite frankly a third, with the New Deal and later the Great Society. These three waves of Progressivism completely changed America and shifted its direction away from the Founders’ vision of limited government and free enterprise.
Progressives had a self-righteous belief that government, rather than the individual or the free market, was the answer. Today, as the conservative movement drafts another white paper on fiscal policy, or attends another conference, there can be no doubt that the Progressives are winning the war. They have created a system of government full of casual loops that over time reinforces and strengthens itself, growing in size beyond even their own expectations and creating a culture of dependency that has left this nation $15 trillion in debt and counting.
The Tea Party is now playing against a system and a formidable enemy that has written the rules of the game to its benefit for more than a century. The enemy and the system will not be defeated overnight, which is why if the Tea Party is to have a long-term impact, it will have to renew itself over multiple succeeding eras—and resist being lured by siren songs into a conservative movement that really is more a racket than anything else.
Even more important, however, the Tea Party needs to realize is that its objective is not about shifting paradigms or having a short-term impact. It’s about crushing paradigms and creating a new set of rules that dictate how the game is played decades from now. America needs a renewed system of government dedicated to reversing the damage of the Progressive movement and promoting American values. The Tea Party, if it is to be remembered a hundred years from now, must shrink the bureaucratic state, returning government to its proper role. It must also fundamentally change the process of electoral politics, whether it’s a return to a caucus and convention nomination process or even repealing the 17th Amendment and the direct election of Senators. Real change is about the Tea Party and the American people transcending the Progressive system of government, the ruling class it created, breaking it and its cronies, devolving power from the federal government, and changing the playing field and rules by which the “game” of politics and government is played. Fundamental change has happened before, and it can be done again, and that is the measurement of true success the Tea Party should seek to attain.