Is the Tea Party a 'Social Justice' Movement? – From the Vault

Is the Tea Party a 'Social Justice' Movement? – From the Vault August 14, 2011

For my Sunday reposts, I choose pieces previously written, but still relevant, and share them here for a largely-new audience.  The following piece attracted a fair amount of attention:

“Is the Tea Party a ‘Social Justice’ Movement?”

As I made my way on an April morning from Harvard Square to a Tea Party Express rally on the Boston Commons, a quotation and a question wound together in my mind. The quotation is a familiar one from William F. Buckley, that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand people listed in the Boston phone directory than the two thousand who comprise the faculty at Harvard University. Buckley was not condemning intelligence or intellectual achievement. He was expressing trust in the moral intuitions and pragmatic sensibilities of ordinary Americans, and indulging in a playful bit of sacred cow tipping.

The liberal aristocracy are apt to swoon not over intelligence — which is found just as much in nurses, mechanics, and executives as it is in the halls of academe — but over the appearance of intelligence, advanced degrees and faculty appointments, the trappings of an elite education. As Buckley understood, a graduate degree is all too often an elaborate exercise in the avoidance of common sense. Impressionable minds are encouraged to reject the conventions of broader society and conform to the trends and fashions of the illuminati instead, and to cultivate the superior disdain of the learned herd for the unlearned horde.

All of this was abundantly in evidence at the Boston Tea Party rally. Animosity and ignorance, prejudice and bigotry, aggression and scorn for “the other” were on full and lurid display on that otherwise beautiful spring morning (see pictures here). However, very little came from the Tea Partiers themselves. More by far came from the numerous counter-protestors, many of whom had obviously shambled over from the scores of colleges and universities scattered around the Boston/Cambridge area. They held signs extolling the entertainment value of abortions, mocked the participants, and accused them of all the usual phobias and -isms.

Sign-holders who were apparently in secure possession of their mental faculties were scarcely bothered by reporters and photographers. Yet the journalists were irresistibly attracted to those (and there were a few) who wore hunting gear or combat fatigues or otherwise looked like they might have just left a militia meeting. These fit the narrative the journalists had been determined to tell ever since they had woken up that morning.

What I witnessed in the Tea Partiers, however, were a moral, sensible, and patriotic people who had a justified concern that their representatives have grown disconnected from those they represent, and are perpetuating a dysfunctional political culture that will thrust our country back to the precipice of economic collapse. Washington cannot pour rivers of money we do not possess into thousands of programs we do not need, in exchange for the mountains of votes that will keep them in power, and complain when the taxpayers get upset. The Tea Partiers are not objecting because they would rather leave the poor to rot than surrender a little more of their money; polls show (as I will discuss in the next part of this series) that Tea Partiers are perfectly willing to accept the need for moderate taxation and social services. Rather, Tea Partiers are objecting because they fear that Washington is caught in a vicious circle of reckless spending and political payback that will cripple our economy and harm all Americans, rich and poor.

This led to the question on my mind that morning. Since it is intent on the formation of a more accountable and more restrained government that will better serve the interest of all Americans: Is the Tea Party movement a social justice movement?

When I asked this question of my beloved liberal friends, they were mortified. There may be no quicker way to help a food-poisoned progressive empty the contents of her stomach than to suggest that the Tea Party movement is just as much a “social justice” movement as are living wage or immigrants’ rights movements.

The reason for their response is simple. For many religious progressives, “social justice” has eclipsed the old God in whom they no longer quite believe. The hope of a socially just world has not complemented and enriched (as it should) but impoverished and occluded their hope of eternity with God. Thus, for them, social justice is the final refuge of the transcendent, the one pure act that remains in a tarnished world, the last vision with the power to stir the graying embers of their religious devotion.

Even religious progressives who still believe in an eternal relationship with God tend to see social justice as holy in the Hebrew sense, as that which sets them apart — apart from the fat cats and the country clubbers, to be sure, but also apart from those Christians, the Christians who live in “Jesusland,” attend megachurches, and wear flags on their lapels: the very same conservative Christians who might be found at a Tea Party rally. Thus, to suggest that the Tea Partiers are engaged in a social justice movement is not only to soil their sacred ideal with the grubby fingers of the bigoted Tea Partiers, but to suggest that progressive Christians and conservative Christians are not separated so much by the presence or absence of love for the poor but by their sense of the policies that best serve the poor and the rest of society.

Whether the Tea Party movement actually is a social justice movement obviously depends on how the term is defined. The irony is that one cannot exclude the Tea Party from the social justice category without betraying that “social justice” is a partisan political theory.

Defining social justice is no simple task. The term first gained some measure of literary solidity in the mid-19th century in the writings of the Sicilian Jesuit, Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, and it was passed down by various Catholic popes and theologians. Father Coughlin popularized the term in the Roosevelt era through his enormously popular weekly radio broadcasts. First he saw social justice as a way of charting a course for worker’s rights between the Scylla and Charybdis of godless communism and heartless capitalism. Never afraid to claim the favor of God for one political party over another, Coughlin coined the phrase, “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal,” and once reported to Congress that, “God is directing President Roosevelt.” From there, his vision of social justice careened into more radical political territory, and eventually his popularity dissolved in a flurry of fascist sympathies and antisemitic paranoia. In a December 1938 issue of his Social Justice magazine, Coughlin published a screed that was largely copied from an English translation of a Joseph Goebbels speech. Although Coughlin was an ardent critic of Marxism, his vision of social justice centered on the advocacy of what we would consider liberal policies on behalf of workers and the poor. He rejected Roosevelt when he believed the latter had fallen in bed with Jewish Wall Street capitalists, and his National Union for Social Justice advocated dramatic redistributions of wealth through taxation of the wealthy, government seizure of property for the greater good, and the nationalization of crucial industries.

When Glenn Beck condemned social justice as a “code word” for liberal political activism, the question that was presented to progressive activists like Jim Wallis was whether social justice is the sole province of left-wing political agitators. With apologies to Albert Einstein, we distinguish between general and special theories of social justice. The general theory is that “social justice is in fact a personal commitment to serve the poor and to attack the conditions that lead to poverty.” That is how Jim Wallis defined the term in a Washington Post column. The special theory, by contrast, asserts that social justice is when one attacks “the conditions that lead to poverty” by advocating specifically the policies that liberals prefer. In other words, on the special theory, it is not enough to fight for the conditions that would allow the poor to prosper; one must do so through redistributionist policies, or living wage movements, or stronger unions, or etc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I know Jim Wallis and I promise I will elaborate in the next post in this series, in which I will respond to an article in which Wallis argues that the Tea Party movement is un-Christian. What is important presently is that when Wallis is pressed on whether he is merely anointing his own political preferences in religious rhetoric, he retreats to the general theory of social justice. People all over the spectrum, he says, are social justice Christians; what is important is simply “to stand up for the poor, even against wealth and power when necessary.” Wallis cites Martin Luther King, Jr., as the prototypical “social justice Christian,” and frequently refers to social justice not only in relation to poverty but also to issues of race, immigration, health care, and the environment.

The Catholic theologian Michael Novak also offers a universal definition of social justice. After noting all the ambiguities in its history and meaning, Novak suggests that social justice is a joint, cooperative action (thus “social” in its form) for the good of the whole of society (and thus “social” in its end). By this definition, social justice is not an “ideological marker,” but is “ideologically neutral.” Social justice “is practiced both by those on the left and those on the right” because there is “more than one way to imagine the future good of society.”

If we adopt Novak’s definition, or Wallis’ universal definition, then the Tea Party movement is in fact a social justice movement. The great majority of those attending the rallies would tell you that the policies they advocate are for the common good of all, including the poor. On the conservative way of seeing things, the interests of the haves and the have-nots are not as easily divisible as Wallis portrays them. Much though it may strain the credulity of the trained progressive, Tea Partiers sincerely believe that taking more and more money away from society’s most productive citizens, and thus disincentivizing productivity and diminishing the resources for private investment; spending more and more in Washington, and thus making economic decisions on political criteria and expanding a federal government that is rife with self-serving inefficiency and corruption; and giving more and more through government distribution, fostering a culture of dependency and vote-buying, is poisonous to our national character and economy and will adversely affect everyone, the poor most of all.

Furthermore, the Tea Partiers would tell you that they are “standing up” against powerful media and political (and even religious) establishments that would mock, slander, and squelch their movement. In his beloved image of “speaking truth to power,” Jim Wallis is no longer the one speaking. He is the one spoken to.

Yet Wallis does not actually hold to the universal theory of social justice. When Wallis actually uses social justice language amongst his supporters, it clearly means pressing for the systemic changes that Wallis and other leaders of “the faith community” prefer. I have never seen Wallis refer to a movement pressing for conservative policies, even when those policies are overtly intended to serve the poor and needy, as a social justice action.

One might respond that movements must press for a biblical vision of justice in order to qualify for the social justice category, and that conservative policies are simply not oriented toward the biblical ideal. To which the answer must be: According to whom? Countless thousands of conservative Christians vote the way they do, and press for the policies they do, precisely because they believe that they fulfill the biblical ideal of justice.

Or one might say that conservatives are really motivated by selfishness and not concern for the poor. Yet this is simply a failure of imagination, a failure to comprehend how conservatives quite genuinely believe that their policy preferences are for the betterment of all society and not only for themselves. Just because conservatives have a different vision of the just society does not mean that they do not care to bring justice to the poor and needy.

Thus one must adopt the general, ideologically neutral theory of social justice, and then accept that all sorts of activities from soup kitchens to living wage demonstrations to, yes, Tea Party rallies, can count as social justice movements — or else one must adopt the special, partisan theory of social justice and accept that Glenn Beck had a point. I leave it to my liberal friends to determine which is the more painful.

I did not agree with everything I heard at the Tea Party rally that day. I have no interest in defending the leaders of the movement. Yet I know these three things.

First: the great majority of those who participate in the Tea Party movement do so because they believe it represents ideals, principles, and policies that would serve the greater good of the American people, and not only their own pocketbooks. What separates religious progressives from the religious conservatives that participate in Tea Party rallies is not compassion but ideology.

Second: my trust in the moral intuitions and pragmatic instincts of the thousands who attended the rally that morning is just as strong, if not stronger, than my trust in the insight and expertise of the two thousand intellectuals who sit atop the academic food chain at Harvard University.

And third: I am less concerned with the anger and bigotry I had been warned to expect in the Tea Partiers than I am with the anger and bigotry I have seen directed against them. The latter, to my eyes, appeared the stronger by far.

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  • Tim,

    I think this is an excellent article that brings some moral balance and clarity to the national discussion of our politics. To further what you have written, I would add, “However, some Tea Party people do care about their principles just because it is in their own economic self-interest to prefer a smaller government. And perhaps some in the special social justice movement are likewise motivated by selfish interest.” I think that, unfortunately, we’re all selfish, and only sometimes compassionate. Some people, by God’s grace, become generally compassionate and other-centered. But it is hard for me to think of most political movements as basically compassionate and noble in their intentions (the abolitionist movement against slavery in England qualifies, and relief for Indonesia after the tsunami, etc). At the same time, to the degree that these higher motivations do reflect the aspirations of the respective political leaders, it is encouraging to see our political leaders call us to action on the basis of what is good and moral.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great points, Carson. Thanks. I would say that most political movements are a mixture of self-interest and interest in the public good (which need not be exclusive, of course, as a practical matter, but which may be distinguished at the level of what the person desires). Part of the question here is how the public good is defined. See my response to Kristin in this comment thread, for instance.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  • Greg Metzger

    What most people I know are concerned about are the views of the Tea Party leaders, and those who appear to have the support of Tea Party people. What do you think about Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann? That is the question that i want an answer to. And what do you think their status in the Republican Party says about the future of traditional conservatives in the party? IMHO, you are missing what the dangerous populism that Buckley would also have condemned. He may well have liked the aspirations of regular tea party folk, but the idea that he would have gone along with the Manichean ravings of a Bachmann or Perry is highly debatable.

    • sdb

      Who are these “traditional conservatives” who oppose the tea party? What exactly is it that they oppose? It seems to me that the Ryan blueprint has broad support among Tea Party activists and conservatives. What are the Manichean ravings of Bachmann and Perry? Hyperbolic criticism of policies with which you disagree is part of our political process for better or worse (remember the ads of republicans pushing granny over a cliff for daring to suggest that we reign in entitlement spending?).

  • I don’t think it’s a Social Justice movement, insofar as Social Justice, at its root, relies on economic egalitarianism. Glenn Beck’s synopsis of Social Justice was crude, but the movement is more ideologically specific that its contemporary adherents pretend.


    What is dangerous about this sort of populism? Which of Perry’s ravings do you find threatening?

    There’s been a bit of revisionist history from the left re: Buckley. It’s important to remember he came to prominence orchestrating the campaign for Goldwater to defeat Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. It’s impossible to know precisely what he would say about Perry or Bachmann (I suspect, like most, he would question the latter’s gravity and electoral prospects).

    Part of the Tea Party’s vilification is a component of this game liberals like to play, whereby they pretend that today’s conservative is so far-right they would alienate the conservative all-stars of yesteryear.

    In the 1990s, it was the Christian right and pro-life groups who were abandoning conservative’s fundamentally libertarian principles. Then it was the neo-cons. Now that fundamentally libertarian principles are en vogue with the right, conservatives are abandoning Reagan. And so on and so forth.

    Of course, Republicans have always been racists. That never changes.

    • Mark

      Don’t forget to point out that Democrats have never been racists.

      On a more serious note, your conclusion that the Tea Party isn’t a social justice movement depends on a category confusion. “Tea Party” and “Social Justice” are not two varieties of the same thing.

      Social justice is a concept about the characteristics of a socially just society. That’s the general theory. The collection of people and groups styling themselves as the “Social Justice Movement” and advocating for a set of government policies they believe in as a way of bringing about a socially just society, would represent the special theory. That’s the proper contrast to the “Tea Party Movement,” which also lays claim to a vision for a socially just society.

      The key distinction would be on the ordering of values between the two visions. Economic egalitarianism, mainly in terms of outcome, is primary for the “Social Justice Movement.” They would claim to support liberty as well, but their understanding of economic justice would take priority. The “Tea Party Movement” would reorder the list of priorities in their vision of a socially just society, but they should still be regarded, at least in this understanding, as a social justice movement.

  • Kristin

    Uhhh….really? The tea party intent is to create a smaller government, yes. But, not a government interested in social justice. It wants the government to be so small it takes away all the rights of the people – or perhaps more accurately, people who are not like them. This is clearly evidenced in the things they fight against. And, they fight for nothing, just against things.

    This is not in the best interest of the PEOPLE. This is in the best interest of themselves – because they want to be surrounded by people like themselves, and want the government to be just big enough to make sure that they are never made to feel uncomfortable.

    They may THINK they have the people’s best interest in mind, but really, that is the facade they put on to fool people like you, dear author.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m impressed, Kristin, that you know their *real*, devious intent. But you say their intent is to create smaller government. Is this not being “for” something? Even if you fight *against* something, you’re generally doing so because you’re fighting *for* the opposite.

      In any case, you rather missed the pincer movement here. Tea Party activists believe that what they’re doing is in the interest of the public good. If a collective action for the public good is the definition of social justice, then it’s a social justice movement. If a collective action for the public good — according to a specifically liberal construction of what the public good means — is the definition, then social justice is a specifically liberal term (and Glenn Beck is right). I wonder which option you find less appetizing.

  • John Haas

    David Campbell & Robert Putnam’s editorial (NYT, yesterday) summarizing their research seems relevant:

    “So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.”

    And, indeed, a regional analysis of the Tea Party Caucus in Congress finds 63% hailing from the former Confederate States of America, and another 19% from the Midwest, home to many emigrated southerners and ground zero for the Klan back in the ’20s.

    • That regional analysis is about as relevant as noting Democrats used to support slavery.

      • John Haas

        Or that Rush Limbaugh is descended from Missourians who sided with the Confederacy . . .

  • Bob C

    Tim, what a cynical post. Please don’t ask folks on the conservative or liberal ends of the pew to accept that something Dick Armey spun up is somehow social justice. Somewhere JP II and Dorothy Day are weeping, as are WFB, CS Lewis and Jack Kemp.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Bob, you’re rather misinterpreting the point of this piece. The point is, if we adopt a neutral definition that a collective pursuit of the social good is “social justice,” then you have to include movements from conservatives who pursue the social good according to their own lights. If we only adopt a definition of the social good that accords with liberal views, however, then “social justice” is indeed politically partisan (as Glenn Beck alleged, and Jim Wallis denied). I too often see people jump back and forth between the generic and the specifically liberal definition, according to what suits them at the time.

      But I actually mean nothing cynical by it. Having visited and reported on tea party rallies, I can honestly say that these are people who believe that what they’re pressing for (of course) is in the interest of society as a whole. The notion that the tea party movement was spun up by Dick Armey is just fantasy. It developed in the way many movements do: you start with some general dissatisfactions, some broadly felt sentiments that cause people of like mind simultaneously to want to take action, to begin to coalesce, to form networks — and then people with resources and infrastructure come in to support, whether because they share the same goals or because it serves their agenda or both. Again, I’m not a Tea Partier, but having been at many of the meetings early on, I can tell you that there were no wealthy people bankrolling it, no big organizations pushing it at the beginning. Those came later, as those organizations sought to throw their weight behind something that they thought was already moving in the right direction.

      Your comment about various people weeping in their graves is, of course, silly. “Social justice” has meant many things to different people at different times; Lewis had a very strong critique of social-justice style politics, and I rather think that Kemp would be pleased with the Tea Party movement. Buckley would have had some differences and some commonalities, but those differences would have been overwhelmed by his indignation at the way they’ve been covered. If you’ve bought into the notion that the Tea Party is just a bunch of racist idiots who are selfishly out to protect their own wealth, you need to leave the fever swamps and actually attend some of these meetings and talk to the people there in a gentle, inquisitive, non-antagonistic fashion. That caricature is gaining currency, to be sure, as it’s been pressed relentlessly by the media and the academic elite, but it wafts from a stew of prejudices that those constituencies hold in common.


      • Bob C

        Tim, the Tea Party is one of the biggest exercises in false consciousness the world has seen – and the biggest Astroturf operation in history. It is mostly composed of passionate, well-meaning people who think they are fighting elite power, unaware that they have been organized by the very interests they believe they are confronting. The billionaires and “advocacy” fronts like FreedomWorks are conflating crony capitalism with free enterprise, and free enterprise with personal liberty.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          The interests Tea Partiers are fighting are first and foremost the interests of big government. I don’t see how FreedomWorks is actually organized by or for big government. And I do not think Tea Partiers are wrong to believe that a smaller government and a freer market would increase personal liberty.

          I agree that there is a certain friendliness toward crony capitalism amongst big business conservatives, though.

          • Mark

            The friendliness toward crony capitalism is hardly unique to big business conservatives. It is equally the case that there is a certain friendliness toward crony capitalism amongst big business progressives, e.g., J. Immelt as head of the President’s economic advisory council.

            Your analysis here based on your first-hand observation from Tea Party gatherings is insightful, and it matches my own experiences. Your opponents’ analyses are also instructive, e.g., Bob, who seems to believe that an evidence-free allegation of false consciousness and Astroturf comprises a substantive argument. You’re gracious to attempt to find a point where your claims based on evidence will engage his claims based on presupposition.