Does the Tea Party Care about Liberty?

Alex Pareene of Salon makes some fair points in his posting, “Tea Partiers don’t actually care about ‘liberty.’” It’s disappointing to hear that New Mexico Tea Partiers booed Gary Johnson’s support for legalizing marijuana. And it’s true that a new poll shows Tea Partiers pretty strongly against marriage equality. But the poll does show them just a smidgen more supportive than either conservatives or Republicans. And other polls (click “Social Issues” on the left) have shown somewhat more support among self-identified Tea Party supporters, or a clear division between libertarian-minded and culturally conservative Tea Partiers. In general, Tea Party activists – organizers and people who attend events – seem somewhat more libertarian than people who simply tell pollsters they consider themselves to be members or supporters of the Tea Party movement.

Tea Party groups have declined invitations to criticize federal court rulings on gay marriage. They have studiously avoided taking positions on social issues, even when social conservatives stomp their feet and demand that the Tea Party start talking about abortion and gay marriage.

I have said before that “The tea party is not a libertarian movement, but (at this point at least) it is a libertarian force in American politics. It’s organizing Americans to come out in the streets, confront politicians, and vote on the issues of spending, deficits, debt, the size and scope of government, and the constitutional limits on government. That’s a good thing. And if many of the tea partiers do hold socially conservative views (not all of them do), then it’s a good thing for the American political system and for American freedom to keep them focused on shrinking the size and cost of the federal government.” That still seems a valid point: Whatever views individual Tea Partiers may hold on an array of issues, as the Tea Party they are organized to constrain taxes, spending, deficits, debt, and the size of government, and that’s a libertarian direction.

Pareene seems simply wrong when he triumphantly ends his post with this supposedly damning quotation from Cato:

(A post from the Cato Institute makes its cheerful willingness to abandon the non-economic planks of its platform explicit: “Candidates and representatives hoping to appeal to the Tea Party, we argue, need to focus on a unifying economic agenda that takes into account this strong libertarian undercurrent.”)

Just read the quotation. My colleague David Kirby is saying that Republicans should avoid divisive social issues – presumably meaning abortion, gay marriage, and projects like the Terri Schiavo intervention – lest they lose the support of libertarian-leaning Tea Party activists. That is, he’s urging the Republican Party to abandon its non-libertarian agenda in order to unify a broad coalition of conservatives, libertarians, and independents. Pareene seems to have misread it.