US Politics correspondent Lee Haddigan's pre-election tour moves to the Bluegrass State of Kentucky:
How can I not like Kentucky? Home of bourbon whisky, the Derby, and bluegrass music, three of the staples of civilised living all found in one state. A perfect day could well consist of sitting at Churchill Downs reviewing the horse-racing programme, sipping a Maker’s Mark while the locals enjoy their mint juleps, and listening to an old-style jug band.
Wrongly or rightly, Kentucky enjoys the reputation of a polite, well-mannered state where the Southern virtues of relaxed refinement and civility still persist.
It is a sign of the threat to the character of Kentucky that the Senate race in the state is turning increasingly bitter and bad-tempered. On Sunday night, the two candidates held a debate where Rand Paul, the tea party-backed Republican, asked his Democrat opponent Jack Conway: “Have you no decency? Have you no shame?" (The “have you no decency” remark may ring bells with some readers. That is the accusation, made by lawyer Joseph Welch at the Senate-Army hearings in 1954, that many argue led to the downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy.)
Paul’s comment came in the wake of a recent ad by the Conway campaign which implied the Republican candidate was an atheist who, in his college days at Baylor University, was a member of a secret society that tied up a woman and forced her to worship their god "Aqua Buddha". The story is not new; it was first reported by GQ Magazine in August. But the use of it in an official campaign ad has angered Paul, who refused to shake Conway’s hand at the end of the debate and who has threatened to withdraw from another scheduled encounter.
Paul has released an ad attacking the smear, accusing Conway of participating in “gutter politics” by bearing false witness against a man’s religion in a tawdry attempt to win a few votes. The ad stresses Paul is a Christian, and his campaign website includes the information that he and his wife have been members of the Presbyterian Church since 1993.
The latest poll in Kentucky shows Paul with 48% support, and Conway with 43%; these numbers mirror the Real Clear Politics average for the contest, with Paul leading by 4.1 % and the election rated as a toss-up. The Lexington Herald Leader, commenting on the latest poll, noted the 9% of voters who are still undecided and presented differing opinions over how the "Aqua Buddha" controversy will sway those who have not yet made up their minds.
Whether the "Aqua Buddha" ad was ill-advised or not only time will tell. But it illustrates the way in which Democrats have been keen to identify their Tea Party rivals in this election as extremists or just plain nutjobs. And this is not just a tactic: if you are a Democrat, especially with the progressive outlook considered in EA on Wednesday, conservatives like Rand Paul are "kooks". He, like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ron Johnson in Wisconson, hold to a political philosophy that is antithetical to the liberal dogma that government by the educated elite is only means to establish an equitable society.
Conservatism is derided by some liberals as the ideology of the authoritarian –-- hence the frequent association of the Right with fascism. To an extent, the accusation is justified when the Right attempts to impose their moral values on society though legislation. But the Tea Party that Paul represents is as far from a fascist, or authoritarian, organization as one can envisage. Its calls for limited government are based on the recognition that human nature is flawed and that the trust of government to anyone runs the risk that he/she will be corrupted by the powers available. Politicians are not necessarily evil, but the wielding of power can make government an instrument of tyranny.
The Tea Party is not a coherent movement with a recognized leader and platform of policies. It is a protest movement founded on the conviction that progressive policies have destroyed America’s traditional reverence for individual freedom. But it is not just an ideology of opposition to, or reaction against, liberalism.
The Tea Party wants a revolution, in the original sense of the word of "turning back", to the principles that underlay the framing of the original Constitution and Bill of Rights. Central to those documents is the conviction that government is a "necessary evil", established to provide a few circumscribed services, that must be constrained by checks and balances.
Along with their trust in the central tenets of the Constitution, the Tea Party believes in the principle contained in the Declaration of Independence that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". This Creator is not some vague Deity, but the Christian god who sacrificed His only son to show us that, although we are flawed, there is hope of redemption in following the Golden Rule that we should only do to others what we would have done to us.
This is the central foundation of the Tea Party's belief in individual freedom and it is why the frequent accusations of fascism so upset them. When you replace faith in the beneficent authority of God with the conviction that humanity can best determine its own course by reason and experiment, then the Tea Party would argue you are only establishing the foundations of a tyranny.
The role of government, a limited government, is solely to ensure that that no individual aggresses on your life, your property, or your desire to live life in pursuit of happiness. And that happiness includes the right to the pursuit of material gain unhindered by the constraint of high taxes or a planned economy. Economic freedom --- the free market --- is an essential part of human freedom, the Tea Party argues, because only when individuals are free to distribute the rewards of their labor as they see fit –-- to be charitable, or not to be charitable –-- can they exhibit the moral virtues that the Bible instructs us are the reason for our existence.
The Tea Party’s anger with President Obama is rooted in the conviction that his administration is leading the United States towards a socialist economy. at way. They may not have read Friedrich Hayek’s Road To Serfdom, but they instinctively feel that measures like health care reform and the stimulus package are steps on that road.
And their distrust of Obama, and what they see as his rejection of the Christian respect for individual freedom that made the United States the greatest nation on earth, was only fuelled when he states --- as he did in Rockville, Maryland, on Monday night --- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." They allege that Obama has misquoted the passage, omitting the Founders' reference to a Creator.
This is the "faith" of the tea party. They may not be able to articulate their beliefs rationally --- as is often the case with faith --- but it is this worldview that validates their demands for a return to limited government. And it is this faith that, again in terms they find hard to express, underlies their hostility to the progressive agenda of President Obama and his allies.
With Rand Paul and Kentucky, we see the two philosophies in contrast. For instance, mountain-top mining of coal, and the possible detrimental effect on the industry from federal cap-and-trade legislation, are a “driving factor" in this Senate race.
Both candidates have stated their opposition to cap-and-trade, but Kentucky voters, nonetheless, have been given a clear choice on the issue. Do you rely on Jack Conway and the government-led approach to legislate on the matter of carbon emissions? Or do you follow Rand Paul and believe that “Government should not get in the way of this economic development and job creation so long as the actions do not harm other people's property or cause safety hazards”?
I am reminded of the comments made by the British intellectual Quintin Hogg in his 1947 book, The Case for Conservatism: “[The] man who puts politics first is not fit to be called a civilized being, never mind a Christian”. Twenty years later, the same sentiment was expressed by the American intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., when he declared that politics “is the preoccupation of the quarter-educated” and that the “curse” of this century was that conservatives were forced to take part in the political process. Both men contended that the government should be limited to preventing injury to a country’s citizens, either by another citizen or a foreign power, and it otherwise leave an individual free to develop his/her personality in accord with the nature granted by God.
That is the impulse I sense, after reading his views on the Federal Reserve, the United Nations, and the role of government, that has forced Rand Paul –-- and Ron Johnson, Sharron Angle, and the Tea Party voters behind them –-- to get involved in politics. They may hold an unrealistic expectation of the influence which governments should have in the modern world, and they may take a supernatural approach to defining the source of mankind’s unalienable rights that others find "kooky", but they are defending a viewpoint with intellectual and historical validity, even if they cannot express it in a language that progressives respect.