From a philosophical perspective,I respected the Tea Party for having an explicit and publicly stated philosophical foundation. This foundation was, of course, the ethical egoism of Ayn Rand. It can be argued that the Tea Party died on July 22, 2019, but the ethical egoism it embraced has lived on and can be used, perhaps, to make theoretical sense of some conservative views in 2020. But first a look at the theory.
Ethical egoism is a consequentialist view of ethics. While there are many forms of consequentialist ethical theories they all endorse the view that the action that should be taken is the one maximizing positive value for the morally relevant beings (those that count). So, a consequentialist theorist must specify the measure of value and decide who counts, thus defining the scope of morality.
In the case of ethical egoism, each person limits the scope of morality to themselves. Ayn Rand, who wrote the Virtue of Selfishness, is a paradigm ethical egoist. For her, each person should act from selfishness and do what is in their best interest. For the ethical egoist, they are the only one with moral value—though other people and things can be valuable to them. Ethical egoism differs from plain selfishness in that it is a moral theory that prescribes what people should do rather than a quality of character. Ethical egoism also differs from psychological egoism. This is the view that people are only motivated by self-interest and is a descriptive psychological theory. Ethical egoists do often accept psychological egoism and argue that we should act upon our nature.
The main moral opponent of ethical egoism is altruism. The altruist extends the scope of morality beyond themselves and accept that other beings matter morally. Altruism comes in degrees, but ethical egoism is absolute: if you are an ethical egoist, then only you count morally. This, which might seem odd, applies to each ethical egoist. Ethical egoists sometimes use a sports analogy to explain this: when competing in sports, you think you should be the winner but you (probably) think that everyone else should think this as well. Critics point out that there seems to be a problem here: if I think only I matter morally (or only I should win) then I would seem to have no reason to accept the same of others—I think they do not matter and I think they should lose to me.
While Rand argues for her take on ethical egoism at length, the gist of her case can be presented very concisely. She agrees with Aristotle and many other philosophers that the good is happiness, but she disagrees with how one should and can become happy. To prove her point, she offers the reader a dilemma: the first choice is to be an ethical egoist—in popular language, to be selfish. The second choice is to be what amounts to a suicidal altruist—sacrificing everything for others. If you elect to be an ethical egoist, she claims that this will lead to happiness. If you select her characterization of altruism, you will end up unhappy. So, the correct choice is ethical egoism.
When explaining Rand, I use the analogy of mountain climbing. At the top of the mountain is happiness and you have two options: focusing completely on getting yourself to the top or sacrificing all your time and resources trying to get others to the top. As Rand sees it, the second option is foolish: you will die miserable, impoverished, and exhausted having never reached the top of the mountain. While her argument has a certain appeal, it suffers from some serious problems.
The main problem is that Rand is presenting a false dilemma: she is offering only two options and ignoring that there are others. Between egoism and suicidal altruism there exists a multitude of other options and when these are considered, her argument is not as clear cut. A second, connected, problem is that she is presenting a straw man: the suicidal version of altruism she presents is not a view of altruism held by most moral theorists. It is, rather, a distorted and exaggerated version—a pathological suicidal altruism. As such, if the Tea Party (or anyone) accepted selfishness over altruism based on Rand’s argument, then they would have fallen victim to two basic fallacies. However, a similar argument could be presented that avoids the false dilemma and the straw man—this would involve considering various non-straw man forms of altruism and matching them up against ethical egoism. Interestingly, the right often uses the false dilemma and straw man approaches when arguing against the left. For example, presenting the left as wanting to make suicidal altruism into law and offering as the only alternative laws that serve the self-interest of the wealthy. This unwillingness to engage in non-straw alternatives might be a rhetorical device but it does suggest that the right believes that they cannot compete against anything but exaggerated and extreme versions of the left. It seems reasonable to think that Rand’s argument influenced the American right and they continue to use it.
I do think that at least some of the Tea Party folks were (and might still be) philosophically sincere. But the current Republican Party seems to have abandoned the idea of having any philosophical foundation—they do not even engage in a pretense of trying to argue that selfishness is a virtue or advancing ethical egoism as a justifying theory. What seems to remain is naked selfishness without the grace of theory to provide even a fig leaf of cover.