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The Tea Party Jacobins

José Luis Magna/AP Images
Glenn Beck of Fox News addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference, Washington, D.C., February 20, 2010

I am their leader, I had to follow them.
—French radical Ledru-Rollin, 1848

A little over a decade ago I published an article in these pages titled “A Tale of Two Reactions” (May 14, 1998). It struck me then that American society was changing in ways conservative and liberal commentators just hadn’t noticed. Conservatives were too busy harping on the cultural revolution of the Sixties, liberals on the Reagan revolution’s “culture of greed,” and all they could agree on was that America was beyond repair.

The American public, meanwhile, was having no trouble accepting both revolutions and reconciling them in everyday life. This made sense, given that they were inspired by the same political principle: radical individualism. During the Clinton years the country edged left on issues of private autonomy (sex, divorce, casual drug use) while continuing to move right on economic autonomy (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). As I wrote then, Americans saw “no contradiction in holding down day jobs in the unfettered global marketplace…and spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties.” Democrats were day-trading, Republicans were divorcing. We were all individualists now.

What happened? People who remember the article sometimes ask me this, and I understand why. George W. Bush, who ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” seemed attuned to the recent social changes. The President Bush who emerged after September 11 took his party and the country back to the divisive politics of earlier decades, giving us seven years of ideological recrimination. By the time of the last presidential campaign, millions were transfixed not by the wisdom or folly of Barack Obama’s policy agenda, but by absurd rumors about his birth certificate and his “socialism.” Now he has been elected president by a healthy majority and is grappling with a wounded economy and two foreign wars he inherited—and what are we talking about? A makeshift Tea Party movement whose activists rage against “government” and “the media,” while the hotheads of talk radio and cable news declare that the conservative counterrevolution has begun.

It hasn’t. We know that the country is divided today, because people say it is divided. In politics, thinking makes it so. Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media.1 But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

If we want to understand what today’s populism is about, we first need to understand what it isn’t about. It certainly is not about reversing the cultural revolution of the Sixties. Despite the rightward drift of the Republican Party over the past decade, the budding liberal consensus on social issues I noted in the Nineties has steadily grown—with the one, complicated exception of abortion.2

Consider the following:

• Since 2001 the proportion of those favoring more religious influence in society has dropped by a fifth, while those wanting less influence rose by half.3

• Today a majority of Americans find single parenthood morally acceptable, and nearly three quarters now tolerate divorce.4 Roughly a third of adults who have ever been married have also been divorced at least once, and that includes born-again Christians, whose rate is roughly the national average.5

• Though opposition to gay marriage has declined over the past quarter-century, a majority still opposes it. Yet more than half of all Americans find homosexuality morally acceptable, and a large majority favors equal employment opportunities for gays and lesbians, health and other benefits for their domestic partners, and letting them serve in the military. A smaller majority now approves of letting them legally adopt children as well.6

Though there’s been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it’s clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind.

And so is the Eighties principle of economic autonomy. For three decades now a consistent majority of Americans has agreed with the following statements when asked: “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful,” “the federal government controls too much of our daily lives,” “government regulation of business usually does more harm than good,” and “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.” Yet there is no widespread desire to push the Reagan agenda of the Eighties further. The ideological polarization between Republicans and Democrats that surveys pick up is owing almost entirely to the radicalization of those belonging to the shrunken Republican base. (As of 2009, only a quarter of Americans identified themselves as Republicans, the lowest figure since the post-Watergate years.)

Democrats have edged slightly more left on political and economic issues, whereas the views of independents, the largest and fastest-growing group of voters, have not changed much over the years. While well over half of Republicans say that they would like their party to move further to the right, just as many independents wish it was less conservative or would stay where it is. The Reagan revolution was a success, in the sense that it shifted political attention in this country from social equality to economic growth. But like all revolutions that achieve their aims, it is now a spent force.7

So what is the new populism about? That depends on who grabs your lapel. Glenn Beck, Keeper of the Grand Narrative at Fox News, fills his blackboard with circles and arrows mapping out the network of elites who have been plotting to seize control of our lives for over a century—from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to George Soros, the Federal Reserve Board, the G7, the UN, and assorted left-wing professors. The economic collapse and financial bailout they have exploited (or more likely caused) have woken the American people from their slumbers and now they are “taking their country back,” which apparently involves anesthetizing the government and buying gold (which Beck promotes on his program). In his lurid book Republican Gomorrah, Max Blumenthal of the Nation Institute sees an entirely different sort of cabal on the Republican right, whose leaders he portrays as sadomasochistic, porn-addicted, child-beating Christian fanatics who share with their Palin-loving followers “a culture of per- sonal crisis lurking behind the histrionics and expressions of social resentment.” (“Gingrich grew his hair long, emulating the style of the counterculture that he secretly yearned to join.”)

If either Beck or Blumenthal is right about the new populism, then it’s not worth taking seriously. My own view is that we need to take it even more seriously than they do; we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low.8 They express some confidence in the presidency and the courts, but when asked in the abstract about “the government” and whether they expect it to do the right thing or whether it is run for our benefit, a relatively consistent majority says “no.”9 It’s important to remember that the confidence they express in free markets and deregulation is only relative to their sense that government no longer functions as it should.

And they are not alone. Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively.10 This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.

  1. 1

    As a recent CBS/New York Times poll shows, though Tea Party members portray themselves as representing middle America, in fact they are overwhelmingly white, older, educated, and with higher-than-average incomes. They are also more likely to feel that too much has been made of race in America and that President Obama’s policies favor poor blacks over the white middle class. See “Tea Party Supporters: Who They Are and What They Believe” (April 14, 2010), at www.cbsnews.com, which also has links to the raw survey data.

  2. 2

    While more Americans are identifying themselves as pro-life today, the proportion of those who want abortion to remain legal under certain circumstances has remained roughly constant for thirty-five years; it is the proportion of those who want abortion to be legal under all circumstances that has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, and the proportion of those in favor of a total ban that has increased.

    Changes in the social context of the abortion debate should also be taken into consideration. Since the time of Roe v. Wade, a monument to the new individualism, contraception has become readily available and inexpensive, the moral stigma of single-motherhood has lessened, and the demand for infants to adopt has grown. Given this background, more people today (women especially) are concluding that expectant mothers have a greater obligation to bring fetuses to term—fetuses who, given advances in ultrasound technologies, now appear vividly as individuals in their own right.

    For slightly contrasting studies, compare the report of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Support for Abortion Slips,” available at people-press.org/report/549/support-for-abortion-slips and Gallup’s long-term trend data at www.gallup.com/poll/122033/U.S.-abortion-attitudes-closely-divided.aspx.

  3. 3

    See trend data at www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx.

  4. 4

    See Lydia Saad, “Cultural Tolerance for Divorce Grows to 70%,” May 19, 2008, available at www.gallup.com/poll/107380/cultural-tolerance-divorce-grows-70.aspx. See the trend data at www.gallup.com/poll/117328/marriage.aspx.

  5. 5

    See Barna Group, “New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released,” March 31, 2008, available at www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released.

  6. 6

    For general trend data about attitudes toward homosexuality, see www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx. For slightly different figures and survey questions, see Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Majority Continues to Support Civil Unions,” October 9, 2009, available at www.people-press.org/rep ort/553/same-sex-marriage.

  7. 7

    On Independents, see Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era,” May 21, 2009, overview and sections 1, 2, 3, and 11. See full report at www.people-press.org/report/517/political-values-and-core-attitudes. For slightly different and more recent figures, compare Lydia Saad, “Conservatives Maintain Edge as Top Ideological Group,” October 26, 2009, at www.gallup.com/poll/123854/conservatives-maintain-edge-top-ideological-group.aspx, and Frank Newport, “Americans More Likely to Say Government Doing Too Much,” September 21, 2009, at www.gallup.com/poll/123101/americans-likely-say-government-doing-too-much.aspx. Note that the slight rightward drift of independents that these surveys picked up is mainly due to the fact that so many moderate conservatives have abandoned the Republicans and now call themselves independents.

    On independent and Republican views on the Republican Party, see www.gallup.com/poll/24655/party-images.aspx.

  8. 8

    See the Pew Research Center’s Databank report on “National Satisfaction” at www.pewresearch.org/databank/dailynumber/?NumberID=11. For trend data see National Election Survey, “Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior,” section 5A, available at www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/gd-index.htm#5.

  9. 9

    See references in footnote 7. These results are consistent across many different polls and polling organizations; see www.pollingreport.com/institut.htm/Federal.

  10. 10

    For results of a sixteen-nation study, see Russell J. Dalton, “The Social Transformation of Trust in Government,” International Review of Sociology (March 2005), pp. 133–154.

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