THE BLOG
10/25/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Media Should Stop Calling Tea Party Radicals "Conservative"

It does not seem to matter what Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other Tea Party lawmakers do, or how radical their agenda or tactics, the media continues to call them "conservative." The same goes for the policy positions they peddle, no matter how extreme or unproven, the media will label those positions "conservative."

Since when did radicalism become conservative?

Abraham Lincoln once asked "What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?"

Russell Kirk, who Ronald Reagan referred to as "the prophet of American conservatism," noted in his influential book The Conservative Mind that a conservative subscribes to "general principles in politics," those arrived at by "convention and compromise" and "tested by long experience"-- not to "fanatic ideological dogmata."

British Statesman Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, emphasized order, the preservation of social institutions, stewardship and prudence as key elements of conservatism. Burke recognized that a civil society cannot exist unless it provides an adequate check on individual behavior. He viewed government as divinely ordained to provide that check and maintain social order, pointing out:

"Somewhere there must be control upon will and appetite; the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without."

John Adams, one of our most conservative founding fathers, largely shared Burke's view of government. He argued for a strong federal government--along with a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one person or group has absolute control. Adams viewed "humility, patience, and moderation" as the greatest political virtues.

Does any of this even remotely describe the political views or temperament of Tea Party lawmakers and those who help them advance their agenda?

No it doesn't, because they are not conservative.

Their political views, although not entirely monolithic, are fundamentally libertarian with a sturdy dose of Ayn Rand's objectivism thrown in. The change they seek is not thoughtful and measured, but hasty and radical. Their fiery rhetoric is designed to inflame passions, not build consensus. They have even lost patience with our system of government, which was established by the framers of the Constitution they so often invoke.

Their willingness to shut down the government and allow the nation to default on its debt is not the strategy of a conservative--fiscal or otherwise. It was a risky gambit that could have wreaked havoc on our economy. As it stands, the shenanigan cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, put people out of work, and ironically provided cover for the botched roll out of the "Obamacare" enrollment system.

As for their view of government, it bears little resemblance to that of Burke, Kirk, Adams or even Barry Goldwater and Reagan. These lawmakers see government--even a democratically elected one that is "of, by and for" the people--primarily as an agent of oppression. They do not see its potential as an agent of good, nor do they generally support laws that set standards and encourage moral behavior.

President Reagan spoke often about properly limiting government and having it live within its means--but he was seeking a lean, efficient and effective federal government, not the largely impotent one envisioned by Tea Party lawmakers.

Reagan supported the federal government's role in protecting the environment, ensuring food safety, maintaining the transportation system and defending civil rights. In fact, he said that those areas "must, of course, be handled on the national level."

He favored governmental standards to protect people from the unscrupulous behavior of others and noted that our nation's environmental laws "have promoted liberty by securing property against the destructive trespass of pollution."

Some in the media like to say that Reagan would not be "conservative enough" for today's Tea Party influenced Republican Party. They have it wrong. It is Reagan's genuine conservatism that distinguishes him from Tea Party libertarians and their radical notions.

All aspects of conservatism--its commitment to ordered liberty, its respect for tradition and precedence, and its demand for prudent decision-making--require an honest assessment of information and the willingness to acknowledge factual data.

Tea Party leaders fail to meet even this basic test of reason. Their opinions, no matter how loosely tethered to reality, are locked in and any information that does not reinforce those held views is automatically rejected. They mostly ignore expert analysis that comes from the world's foremost economists, climate scientists, policy wonks, historians and even business leaders.

One Tea Party cause célèbre provides a good case in point. Tea Party lawmakers have been trying to derail new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs that are now phasing in under a 2007 energy law. They claim that the new standards would "ban" incandescent bulbs and force everyone to use compact fluorescent bulbs.

The nation's light bulb manufacturers, who helped craft the new standards, explained that this was not true. They had retooled their factories and were manufacturing more efficient incandescent bulbs that meet the standards. Those new incandescent bulbs, which produced the same amount and quality of light as the old versions, were already on store shelves and had been distributed to lawmakers.

None of those realities mattered. The bulb ban assertions continued and legislation blocking enforcement of the new standards passed in the House of Representatives.

The media--mainstream and right-wing--does a great disservice to our nation when it allows conservatism to be claimed and redefined by Tea Party radicals.

Many Americans consider themselves to be politically conservative--and most practice conservatism in the conduct of their daily lives. By attaching the conservative label to this form of radicalism, and to those who practice it, the media conveys undeserved legitimacy.

If uncompromising libertarianism and Randian Objectivism are permitted to own the conservative label, what do we then call the genuine conservatism that has contributed to the success of our nation since its founding?

For this country to once again be led responsibly, with functional political institutions, the radical extremes of political thought cannot be allowed to supplant the tried and true--nor can we allow thoughtful statesmen to be shoved aside by intemperate ideologues.

Yet that is exactly what is happening on the political right, in part because the media--through either ignorance, laziness, or design--has helped facilitate the hijacking of the conservative label.

Almost every day we are subjected to the lunacy of actual conservatives being attacked by radicals for not being "conservative" enough. Then, when the media reports on these attacks, it offers no challenge to their faulty premise.

By allowing the co-opting of conservatism to go unchallenged, the media is complicit in this lunacy--and just as the radicals have turned reality on its head, so too has the media.

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