BP Spill Responsibility Highlights Republicans' Tea Party Problem

America’s founding was not a "pristinely" conservative framework that was later befouled by Progressives.

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By Scott Galupo, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Georgetown University’s Patrick Deneen has an excellent recap of a couple of recent symposia in Washington, D.C., on the Tea Party movement, populism, and what it all means for conservatism.

You should read the whole thing, but here are a couple of key points:

Strikingly, throughout the two-and-a-half hour discussion, it wasn’t suggested once that Tea Party populism might have a legitimate anti-corporate animus.


Also amusing were the now knee-jerk efforts by the Right intelligentsia to pin all that is bad about America on the Progressive movement, that infestation upon the pristine perfection of the Constitutional order. What went unmentioned in that regard was that at least as many Republicans advanced Progressivism as Democrats. What’s more, Progressives were as prone to praise the Founding Fathers as were members of the panel, and shared a similar set of sympathies, seen in particular in Progressive-era praise concentrated particularly on Alexander Hamilton and his vision of an “American system” (Progressives were also quite often hawks on American imperialism, another interesting family resemblance with members of the panel). As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s far from clear that the Progressives are antithetical to the Constitutional vision of (some) Founders, and that there’s far more continuity between the Founders’ and Progressivism’s vision of a centralized, powerful state on the one hand, and anti-federalist and Populist criticism of public and private power, on the other.

I’ve been banging my head against this brick wall for a couple months now, but here I’ll go again: America’s founding was not, to borrow Deneen’s word, a "pristinely" conservative framework that was later befouled by Progressives. The Founders were themselves driven by fundamentally different worldviews that don’t fall neatly on today’s axis of partisan divisions. I sometimes feel like conservatives today would just as soon forget that the debate between Federalists and anti-Federalists ever took place.

The choice of late 18th-century America was between a large commercial society, with the federal--repeat: federal--government directly promoting the interests of business through the use of debt and tariffs, and the maintenance of a small, traditional agrarian republic.

Ironically, Jefferson himself laid the groundwork for his side’s defeat by purchasing the Louisiana territory; he no doubt thought he was securing breathing room for the yeomen of the New World. But what we ended up with was an even larger, indeed continental, commercial republic that would eventually be settled by federally-promoted homesteaders and connected by federally-promoted railroads.

The Republican party’s confusion over how to frame the debate about the Gulf oil spill and British Petroleum’s responsibility for it is a perfect illustration of how these old divisions can still nettle the sensibilities of latter-day conservatives.

[ Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the Gulf oil spill.]

Georgetown’s Deneen, with his antipathy toward public and private “depredation,” has no such conflict. But the Bill Kristols of the world do—or should, at any rate, if they care to claim a share of Tea Party populism.

In one respect, I think Deneen gives Tea Partyers too much credit; as I’ve written before, I have my doubts about whether they’re truly as anti-corporation as they are anti-Washington.

And I suspect that the populist-leaning Deneen and I differ quite a bit on our respective comfort level with Hamiltonian-style governance. (Namely: I think it’s been a smashing success, more or less, for two centuries.) But on the questions of intellectual pedigree, he’s exactly, spot-on correct.