Thomas Sowell Warns Tea Party Against Idealism

Thomas Sowell is a smart man. Conservatives recognize this and they respect him deeply, so I hope they read his latest piece, “Tea Party at the Crossroads.

In it, Sowell beseeches the Tea Party to come to their senses on fighting the present battle over Obamacare.

He cites a quote by another conservative hero, Edmund Burke: “Preserving my principles unshaken, I reserve my activity for rational endeavours.”

“Burke makes a key distinction,” writes Sowell, “between believing in a principle and weighing the likely consequences of taking a particular action to advance that principle.”

It’s along the lines of William F. Buckley’s quip that you wouldn’t put Mona Lisa into a beauty pageant (although in Buckley’s case, he was referring to nominating principled but unelectable Republicans in primaries). You may be adhering to some principle in putting Mona Lisa into a beauty pageant, but she will lose and your cause will become even less attainable than before. One step forward in adhering to the principle, two steps back in the results.

Principles are vital, but they must be advanced strategically, thoughtfully, without emotions getting in the way. The Tea Party needs to learn this, says Sowell.

With the chances of making a dent in ObamaCare by trying to defund it being virtually zero, and the Republican Party’s chances of gaining power in either the 2014 or 2016 elections being reduced by the public’s backlash against that futile attempt, there was virtually nothing to gain politically and much to lose.

Exactly. But to be fair, the strategy of attempting to defund Obamacare by forcing the Democrats to decide between keeping Obamacare or shutting down the federal government would have been a smart strategy if the American public weren’t too stupid to see that it was the Democrats, not the Republicans, who chose the shutdown over defunding Obamacare. Where Republicans (as pressured by conservatives) faltered was in accepting conservatives’ generous overestimation of the average American’s intelligence.

However difficult it might be to repeal ObamaCare after it gets up and running, the odds against repeal, after the 2014 and 2016 elections, are certainly no worse than the odds against defunding it in 2013. Winning those elections would improve the odds.

It’s not helpful to conservative politicians that they think so highly of the average American. Overestimating them is just as risky as underestimating them. If conservative politicians accepted the reality—that most Americans are stupid liberals—they’d be able to form more effective strategies.

If the Tea Party made a tactical mistake, that is not necessarily fatal in politics. People can even learn from their mistakes—but only if they admit to themselves that they were mistaken.

Remember, this admonishment comes from Thomas Sowell, not some left-wing CNN contributor. The Tea Party needs to be strategic, not idealistic.