This is Not What the Tea Party Fought For

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

(This article first appeared in the New York Times)

By Jennifer Stefano

In November 2010, I took a bus from my home in Philadelphia to the National Mall in Washington. The night before the trip, I stood in my kitchen and wrote in large letters on cardboard: “The People’s Work Starts Now!”

When the bus reached the mall and we stepped out into the bitter wind, I looked at the monuments and realized that I was not there as a tourist this time, but as an activist — an idea I would have been allergic to just a year before.

But I, like millions of others, was becoming the new American radical, defined by my belief in a limited government that allows people, not bureaucracy, to flourish.

Before all of this, my main contributions to American politics were voting, voraciously reading American history and Austrian economic theory and irritating liberals at dinner parties.

After that, I found myself organizing bus trips and protests with my fellow stay-at-home mothers and citizens from across the political, economic, racial and social spectrum. We were united around one fact: None of us knew what we were doing.

It was exhilarating. In 2010, we weren’t Washington insiders, but we were vocal and informed. No spending bills, tax increases or political pork from this lame-duck Congress, we demanded.

Our victory that day came when Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, then the minority leader, announced that Republicans would pass a moratorium on pork-barrel earmarks. Today, it’s ironic, that the Republicans’ talk of bringing earmarks back.

We built on that win and called for “cut, cap and balance,” culminating in President Barack Obama’s signing of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

No one can take those accomplishments away from us, but today, I and many of my fellow accidental activists feel that President Trump and Congress are taking action on spending that is undoing our hard work.

The budget that the White House sent Congress last week blows through those spending caps, possibly saddling our children with millions of dollars more in debt.

President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was a victory for Americans. Companies across the nation are raising wages and bringing offshore profits back to this country, which should accelerate private sector growth.

Yet when it came to spending, some of the same politicians who championed tax cuts and claimed to be for limiting government caved to Washington’s political culture.

This highlights an uncomfortable truth: Partisan majorities do not guarantee good public policy. A Republican president and Congress still could not enact balanced fiscal policy, with tax cuts and spending decreases.

I am a limited-government advocate not because I care about a political party, but because I believe that the personal liberty and prosperity of all Americans, especially the least fortunate, are threatened by government overreach.

I hope this is a turning point for my fellow activists to refocus our fight where the real power lies: the states.

Federal tax reform would not have happened without North Carolina’s tax overhaul in 2013. It was that model that Congress used as a guide to create the federal policy from which we now benefit.

In Pennsylvania, we faced a $60 billion public pension debt last year. Our Republican-dominated legislature passed, and our Democratic governor signed, a pension reform bill that the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts called one of the most transformative in the country.

Before I identified as an activist, I had never heard of the 1960s radical Saul Alinsky. Now, many of my fellow activists and I are following his advice. We have professionalized and are leading institutions that can bring change at the state level.

Most of us don’t refer to ourselves as Tea Partyers anymore and it’s been awhile since I made a cardboard sign. But if I did, I’d probably go with something like this: “The People’s Work Continues!”