They’re calling it the tea party Congress, and the new leadership is busy snipping earmarks, targeting Obamacare, and quoting the Constitution. But can they succeed where similar conservative backlashes have failed? Whatever your opinion of the whole tea party movement — and mine stops far short of blanket approval — you have to admit it has some interesting qualities that set it apart from conservative approaches of decades past.

By idealistically venerating the founding fathers, the tea party avoids the kind of cynical pragmatism that reigned in Richard Nixon’s era. By steering clear of religiously divisive “social issues,” the tea party avoids the kind of attack on the Constitution’s separation of church and state that characterized Ronald Reagan’s era. And by stressing that both major political parties are guilty of expanding government power without apparent limit, the tea party breaks with the neoconservative, big-government Republicanism that held sway in George W. Bush’s era.

Entrenched thinking

All this has generated a refreshing “clean sweep” sensibility, consistent with a grass-roots movement of Americans who are sincerely focused on individual freedom — and frustrated at the futility of past efforts to combat the seemingly unstoppable encroachment by government power. If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine the tea party making good on its promise to permanently restore some of our freedom. But with eyes wide open, I see a movement imperiled by the same entrenched thinking that has driven government’s growth for more than a century.

One side of the divided tea-party mentality (its “right brain,” so to speak) recoils from the cumulative impact of government programs enacted over more than a century. In the wake of unprecedented “stimulus” spending, Wall Street bailouts, “Government Motors,” and Obamacare’s takeover of health insurance, the movement foresees economic ruin and diminished freedom for all Americans. To combat these evils, the tea party invokes America’s founding ideals of individual rights and limited government, and talks about cutting big government down to size.

Meanwhile, however, the tea party’s “left brain” harbors the same moral impetus that has justified bigger and bigger government since the Progressive Era. The basic idea is that some people’s needs constitute a moral claim on the lives and wealth of others. The list of needs is endless: economic stability, job security, housing, health care, retirement funds. To satisfy those needs, government concocts regulatory and wealth transfer schemes that coercively subject the individual to society. Over the years, each new program — from the Federal Reserve to Social Security, Medicare, and beyond — acquires an aura of moral dignity that renders it politically untouchable by later generations. The needs of others permanently displace the freedom of the individual.

Based on this conflict, my prognosis has the tea party headed for the political equivalent of an epileptic seizure.

Consider that the movement’s once-unanimous rallying cry of “Repeal Obamacare!” has already morphed into “repeal and replace,” so as to “retain some of its more popular provisions.” Indeed, even as House Republicans this week engineered a symbolic vote for repeal (which will be dead on arrival in the Senate), those same members of Congress are setting the stage to make many of Obamacare’s onerous provisions permanent.

And then consider what programs would have to be dismantled just to return to that conservative nirvana, the Reagan era: the Americans with Disabilities Act (enacted under Bush I), State Health Insurance for Children (enacted under Clinton), as well as prescription drugs for seniors and Sarbanes-Oxley regulations penalizing all businessmen (both enacted under Bush II). Can you imagine the tea party seeking to eradicate any of these programs?

They can’t imagine it either, because the scenario for failure is too obvious. The tea party’s adherents know that any attempted repeal would be attacked as “mean-spirited, heartless, and selfish.” And they know that, according to conventional moral standards, they would stand guilty as charged. Paralyzed by this moral conflict, they will simply refrain from starting battles they can’t win.

A difficult moral battle

And winning this kind of moral battle, though possible, would be difficult. The tea party’s adherents would need to discover the moral principle underlying the often quoted but little understood ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They would need to argue that all schemes that sacrifice the individual to society are morally wrong. And they would need to argue that this country’s most rational and industrious citizens — including business leaders, doctors, health insurers, and taxpayers and productive individuals in all walks of life — are oppressed victims who deserve to be liberated, by permanent repeal of laws and regulations that invade their rights.

In short, the tea party would need to fully embrace individualism as a moral ideal. Although the odds against this are exceedingly large, I think there’s some cause for optimism. For the first time, a resistance movement is looking for answers in Ayn Rand’s writings. From the original public rant that inspired the tea party idea (when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli said “at the end of the day, I’m an Ayn Rander”) to last fall’s US Senate victory by Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson (who calls "Atlas Shrugged" his “foundational book”), Rand’s uncompromising defense of individualism has become a part of the tea-party mix.

Can the tea party deliver on its promise to cut back big government? Yes it can, but not unless its supporters awaken to the need for moral intransigency in pursuing individual liberty.