Skip to main content

3 lessons for the tea party

By Michael Kazin, Special to CNN
October 12, 2013 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Kazin: In 1961 Reagan warned of spread of socialism -- he was talking about Medicare
  • Kazin: In opposing Obamacare, tea party echoes movements against Social Security
  • He says they're usually backed by wealthy and predict catastrophe that never comes
  • Kazin: Activists draw power as outsider, but often find citizens like their social programs

Editor's note: Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is editor of Dissent. His most recent book is "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation" (Knopf/Vintage)

(CNN) -- If we allow this awful measure to stand, predicted the conservative spokesman, "behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day...we will wake to find that we have socialism [and] we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free."

This could be a tea party representative warning about the perils of Obamacare and willing to keep the government closed until it is delayed or repealed. But it was Ronald Reagan speaking back in 1961. And the program he viewed as the driving wedge of socialism was Medicare.

Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin

One can draw three important lessons from that statement and from the later presidential career of the man who made it. First, the fear that a federal program designed to help millions of people flagrantly violates the Constitution and speeds the nation toward tyranny has deep roots in modern U.S. history.

In the mid-1930s, the American Liberty League hurled that charge at Franklin D. Roosevelt for creating Social Security as well as for endorsing the right of unions to organize. In 1964, Barry Goldwater made a similar argument against the Civil Rights Act.

"The problem of race relations," the Republican presidential nominee contended, should be left to the people of the South to decide. It "should not be effected by engines of national power." In 1994, Newt Gingrich and his fellow House Republicans described President Bill Clinton's national health care plan, which included an employer mandate, as a radical attempt to coerce American business.

The Liberty League collapsed after FDR won re-election in a landslide in 1936. But the careers of Reagan, Goldwater and Gingrich were propelled by a large movement of white, middle-class Americans who shared the same dread of federal power tea party members now express. Like the Koch brothers today, wealthy individuals on the right were always eager to finance that movement.

Donald Trump: I believe in Tea Party
Defunding Obamacare a 'fool's errand'
Congressman: The Cruz strategy hurt us

The second lesson is that, over time, the dire predictions of conservatives have not come to pass. Social Security and Medicare did not destroy individual liberty in America; they enabled millions of people to avoid poverty and an early death. Of course, these programs eat up the lion's share of the federal budget. But few citizens -- including the most zealous tea party activists -- would wish to cut the benefits they receive, much less abolish them. And if black people had waited for the majority white Southerners to grant them equal rights, they might be waiting still.

The final lesson is that when conservatives do take power in Washington, they depart quite markedly from the rhetoric of their campaigns. As president, Reagan made no attempt to reduce Social Security payments and expanded Medicare to cover "catastrophic" costs. When he made it to the White House, George W. Bush, who had been the favorite candidate of most conservatives in the 2000 primaries, initiated a major new entitlement program, Medicare Part D.

When they campaign for votes and donations, conservative candidates for national office are fond of such slogans as "the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen." But those who gain victory quickly realize that Americans like and often rely on the government programs, which benefit them and their families, and will punish any politician who tries to take them away. As two astute political scientists put it in the 1960s, most Americans may be "ideological conservatives," but they are also "operational liberals."

Ironically, however, the conservative activists who despise "big government" endure because the politicians they endorse never fulfill their desires. By losing nearly every big battle to curb federal power from the New Deal onward, they maintain the fervor of a movement of outsiders. The struggle to preserve the constitutional order against the onslaughts of its enemies never ends. If a future President Rand Paul or Ted Cruz did make a serious attempt to dismantle the welfare state, their disciples would lose their image as heroic losers.

But this fall, the tea party, the latest version of the grassroots right, has already achieved a victory of sorts. With the acquiescence of Republican leaders, its stalwarts in Congress have done much to bring the nation to the brink of a financial catastrophe. If that debacle were to occur, we could, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, someday be telling our children and grandchildren what it was once like in America when we had a government that could truly function.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Kazin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT