The Tea Party movement has spawned a number of popular memes from “Taxed Enough Already” to “honk if I’m paying your mortgage” most of them on message, clever, and displaying an appropriate attitude. But I want to take issue with one that I’ve seen a lot, and which seemingly is spreading of late. It’s the notion that we the people should dump all incumbents and start anew since they’ve obviously failed so badly. Here’s an example of how it’s put in one recent blog post:
When you fully grasp the plain truth that 545 people exercise the power of the federal government, then it must follow that what exists is what they want to exist. We must vote ALL of them out of office and clean up their mess!
Now I don’t mean to pick on the post, the rest of which I found quite worthwhile, or the blogger who may not even have meant precisely what he said here, but it’s emblematic of what I’m talking about. Although those 545 collectively share the power of the federal government (ignoring the executive for the moment), and they’re collectively doing a very poor job, they don’t act as one, but rather display competing and opposed interests and agendas. Luckily, some of those agendas are shared with the Tea Party movement, and it would be a mistake for us to punish the people fighting our fight within government along with those fighting against us.
The problem with this rallying cry is that it assumes incumbency is the problem. This is a common manifestation of a populist message, but it’s a trap that sets preferences that sometimes depart from our real priorities. Simply put, incumbency is not the problem, liberalism is the problem. Incumbency may have some tendency to liberalize, but I think we’re capable of judging individuals by their actions. The goal, particularly in the case of the Tea Party movement, is to reverse the growth of government and get government out of our business, not to punish people on the basis of our having elected them in the past. It seems to me that we should consider it a blessing that some of the people who share our values are already serving as it increases our ability to effect policy now and it will tend to help us in upcoming elections.
My guess is that most of the people making this declaration have not really thought through it’s implications. I’m sorry to make that accusation, especially against so many people who I think are really on the right side of things and offer thoughtful input elsewhere, but I’m trying to let them off the hook on this one. For instance, would the Tea Partiers demonizing incumbents want that rule to apply to conservative champions like Jim DeMint? Certainly they would consider celebrity Representative Michelle Bachmann to be an exception. Although maybe the shame of holding office finally provides a simple and full explanation of Sarah Palin’s resignation.
Certainly, there’s a lot of anger at those controlling government today and I agree that they’re pursuing a dangerously backward agenda and I think that anger is generally a good thing. But I to want us to be mindful of this point because it gets us saying something that’s not exactly what we mean. And I think there’s a real danger there of distracting from the important message, which can result in misspent efforts and which risks confusing or alienating those we’d hope would join us.