06/23/2010 07:54 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why the Tea Party Is Good for America

Late last year, few could have predicted that Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown would return Massachusetts to the red column after decades awash in blue. Even fewer could have foreseen primary victories for Sharron Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Raul Labrador in Idaho, Mo Brooks in Alabama, and much less that challenger Mike Lee would finish ahead of incumbent Senator Bob Bennett in the three-way race for the GOP nomination in Utah.

So when those Tea Party-backed candidates triumphed over their establishment opponents, everyone was left searching for answers. Except true believers who, from the very beginning, have stood unrelenting in their defense of three principles: limited government, free markets, and individual rights and responsibility. The Tea Party has always believed those principles would resonate with Americans. And in light of the Tea Party's recent string of extraordinary electoral victories, there is now little doubt that those principles do indeed resonate with significant swaths of the American population.

Yet despite the Tea Party movement's electoral success, many Americans have been slow to fully embrace the movement and its mission. Americans remain skeptical of the Tea Party, unsure whether the movement will fizzle or flourish, and hesitant to associate themselves with what many dismiss as nothing more than the latest political fad.

Others have been more unforgiving. They have argued that the Tea Party movement is bad for America because its members harbor racist views, preach messages of hate and intolerance and incite impressionable minds to violence rather than inspiring constructive contributions to civil society.

But even if those charges are true and do indeed describe accurately the views of some or all within the Tea Party movement, the Tea Party movement is still good for America.

The core of all democratic rights is the right to political speech. When citizens engage with one another and with their elected representatives, the outcome is always good. What results are dynamic communities, robust public institutions and a political process whose foundations grow stronger when citizens are compelled to confront views from all perspectives, especially those they find reprehensible.

That is why the Tea Party movement deserves both our praise and our thanks. Whether they are for or against the movement, Americans far and wide have marched in rallies, picketed in protests, canvassed for candidates and expressed themselves in the ballot box. The Tea Party movement has stirred people in all corners of the country to participate in public discussions that will determine the face and fate of the United States in the years ahead.

What is most important, though, is that Americans have taken their views to the public square peacefully. They have come together enthusiastically and hungrily, but always civilly, to debate matters of intense moral disagreement--something that would pull many other nations into the depths of civil war.

Nothing more candidly lays bare, in full bloom, the beauty of American democracy, the resilience of American public institutions and just how profoundly the spirit of public discourse has permeated the soul of American citizens. That is precisely what democracy is meant to be: a civil war of ideas, rhetoric and vision pitting passionate challengers versus equally passionate incumbents.

Democracy undermines its own ambitions if it takes the paternalistic posture that citizens need protection from nefarious groups whose members profess nefarious views on the role of government and the scope of rights. The Tea Party movement is proof positive that democracy means nothing if it divests citizens of the right to speak freely, even if they wish to speak for objectionable purposes. It demonstrates that democracy loses its force when it denies citizens the right to associate broadly, even if that association serves purposes some deem contemptible.

But the real virtue of the Tea Party movement is not necessarily who it roots for, nor what it roots for, but rather that it roots at all. In a liberal democracy founded on the three pillars of free expression, political participation and collective action, the Tea Party movement achieves the aspirations of the American vision for democracy.