Lots of the criticisms of the tea party movement as "extremist" assume that the movement is some sort of "American Taliban" -- theocratic, censorious, antigay. The reality is that the highly decentralized tea party movement has done a remarkable job of staying focused on a specific agenda that is nothing like that. The Tea Party Patriots website proclaims its mission as "Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market." Many tea partiers say that "tea" stands for Taxed Enough Already. Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco [not Wacko] Tea Party, told NPR Thursday, "Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility."
In fact, some social conservative activists are annoyed that President Obama's big-government agenda and the robust tea party response have focused the country's attention on the issues of spending, debt, and the size of government rather than cultural war. On that same NPR interview Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association complained that "the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place . . . when it comes to social issues" and demanded that the movement "send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues." Walker explained that the tea party isn't opposed to social conservatism, it just doesn't take a position on those issues: "It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That's not what the NRA is about. They're about gun rights." As she said:
I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that's one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it's a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that's why we stick to the issues that brought us together.
In the Washington Times social conservatives complain about the tea party movement's emphasis on fiscal issues:
"There is suspicion among our social-conservative base that the new tea party/libertarian Republicans might soon view restrictions on abortion as they would any government proscription of private conduct," said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank A. Keating. [Not clear if this is also the position of his current employer, the American Council for Life Insurance.]
"Some of my law enforcement friends have expressed similar views about a worrisome second look at drug laws," Mr. Keating added. "Perhaps it is fringe thinking and a fringe worry, but it is still a worry."
In fact, many libertarian-minded Republicans - among them Senate nominee Rand Paul of Kentucky - have raised questions about the wisdom of the country's strict laws on drug use.
Saturday's Wall Street Journal quotes me in a discussion of the Values Voter Summit and social conservatives' griping about the tea party:
[Christine] O'Donnell's appearance at the Values Voter Summit in Washington put a spotlight on the challenge facing social conservatives, prominent in GOP politics earlier in the decade, as they try to hitch themselves to the fiscal insurgents of 2010. They may be ideological soul mates, but that doesn't mean they'd govern the same way.
"My sense of the average tea party-endorsed candidate this year is that what motivates them is their concern over spending and the national debt," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute. "If a gay-marriage ban came before Congress, they'd probably vote for it, but that's not what motivates them."
Mr. Boaz predicted tea-party congressional freshmen would push for a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, not an amendment to ban gay marriage. "I don't think there's likely to be a lot of social activism coming out of them," he said....
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in June found that just 2% of those identified as tea partiers put social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage at the top of their priority lists for federal action.
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.
Liberals spend too much of their time being deathly afraid of the religious right. Brink Lindsey described contemporary American politics as a “libertarian consensus that mixes the social freedom of the left with the economic freedom of the right” in his book The Age of Abundance. Over the past 50 years, social conservatism has lost its battles against civil rights, against feminism, against sexual freedom, against gay rights. It hasn't even managed to reduce the illegitimacy rate. The real challenge in American politics today is to constrain and reverse the past decade's accumulation of money and power in Washington. And in that effort the tea party movement is on the front lines.