Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Steep In This

Last Tuesday, it was with no small amount of dismay that I read this editorial by the New York Times' David Brooks, on the subject of the Tea Party movement.  Here's a sample of the tone of the thing:
The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.
The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.
And here:
The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.
 Get the picture? One the one hand, you have the "Educated Classes," on the other, a "fractious" rowdy rabble of reactionary nay-sayers. Brooks' position is characteristic of the near-monotonic position of the mainstream media with respect (or rather, its lack) to the Tea Party movement, and of the supposed lack of credibility which any "reasonable" person should ascribe to it. Depending on who you ask, the fiscal conservative, small-government message of the Tea Parties is either a thinly-veiled front for a theocratic SoCon agenda, or else it is a feeble-minded rejection of all that highfalutin'  college-boy/girl doubletalk...or, still more objectionable, it is a fetid fog rising from the dingiest backwaters of the Confederacy to block the uppity aspirations of the Nation's first Black POTUS.

And, of course, if the evocation of these memes should fail to dissuade the rare fence-sitter from putting forth a good-faith effort to understand what these people are on about, there is always the tried-and-true technique of middle-school locker room mockery. After all, who would want to speak up at any of the best parties in defense of "Teabaggers?" (huh-huh. huh-huh)

All this talk of "educated classes" makes me very uncomfortable. The clear implication is that one needs to be in possession of academic accolades, a member of the most rarefied reaches of the upper stratosphere of the intelligentsia in order to be entrusted with the business of governing a Republic of the people. I strongly suspect that the response of many of my hypothetical readers to the previous sentence would be a hearty "Yeah? And?"

I have a BA from NYU, and a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) from a well-known institute in Pennsylvania. Big Deal. These help me to ply my trade and realize my dreams, in much the same way that a certificate in HVAC enables one to realize his or hers. I’m plenty educated, thankyouverymuch. And I am very favorably disposed toward the Tea Party movement.

This insistence that our Leaders possess august academic credentials is predicated on the idea that those leaders are expected to Do Things, to manage and craft society like a massive intellectual exercise, and that this is the proper role of government. I used to believe this myself. I subscribed to the Philosopher King model of leadership, and so believed that power should not be entrusted to anyone of lesser intellectual/academic heft. As little as five years ago, the very notion that someone like Sarah Palin should be greeted with anything but a snort of derision would have been anathema to me, as it currently is to those who --consciously or no-- still feel our Nation would be best served by a Philosopher King.

But I’ve evolved to a very different place since then. I have come to believe that the proper role of government, as willed into being by the Founders of this Nation, is not to Do Something, but to stand aside, doing as little as possible, while the mass of free individuals pursue their ends and deploy their hard-earned capital as they see fit. We do not need a Philosopher King…or any other kind of king (or queen) for that matter. We need competent administrators with the humility and common sense to remove unjust obstacles to the people's pursuit of liberty’s fruits, protect their rights to liberty and property…and then to stay the frack out of the way. This is what the Tea Partiers advocate, and they have made it abundantly clear that they are not beholden to any given political party in their campaign for these goals.

A useful dialogue may be had on the question of whether a society is best-served by a member of the anointed academic elite, or by a savvy pragmatist of a more 'populist' stripe. The answers to such questions will tend to hinge on the whether one espouses a Conservative or a Liberal view of how resources and power should be distributed for the optimal functioning of this society (I keep coming back to this post on the day after Election Day 2008. I beg the reader's indulgence; I think it's about as clearly as I've ever articulated the difference between these viewpoints). Unfortunately, that is just the sort of conversation which is drowned out in what has become a clash of dueling caricatures. Liberals default to a largely unquestioned stance of haughty, elitist derision, and Conservatives to one of clamorous anti-intellectualism with more-or-less equal (and equally maddening) frequency, and we all lose.

For those who might still be reading, I refer you to this spirited and unusually even-tempered defense of the Tea Parties over at The Daily Beast. Key grafs:
It is hardly surprising that in times like these there should be a large, angry, populist movement. But populism does not conform to the standard left/right divide, and in different circumstances it can go either way. (A rather good Greenwald column makes this point, too.) The populist’s personality is driven as much by wounded pride as by economic concerns, and so he resents the cultural elitism of the liberal elites, including their patronizing desire to help him, as much as the economic elitism of the wealthy.
Yes, the populists fear and hate the big businesses and Wall Street; but—and this is the heartening thing—they have not let this turn them against capitalism and the free market. They seem truly to have taken in the point, long emphasized by libertarians and others, that big business is not the same thing as capitalism or the free market, that it is in fact often their enemy. Perhaps the Obama administration has finally driven this point home, as it has been an object lesson in how the party of big government is really in bed with big business, giving it all the bailouts and favors. So by this reckoning, the Tea Parties would be a very serious development in which anti-big business forces would finally join with anti-big government forces to create a genuine free-market party that would maximize the opportunities of the little guy—like this small-business owner from California. (Note, this YouTube clip has nearly 250,000 hits and 6,000 comments.)
This video makes me emotional, because this woman represents an America that Tocqueville would have lauded. I will take her any day over the “educated class,” the bureaucratic mollusks and the defeatist sad sacks in Washington. I do think the Tea Partiers are political amateurs, but the content of their politics is deadly serious. The professional politicians will dismiss them at their peril.
Indeed.  History has yet to determine if, despite the considerable centrifugal forces which exist in a loosely-constituted confederation of populists, the Tea Party movement will succeed in focusing the energies of the GOP toward the presentation of a coherent and positive alternative to the centralizing tendencies of the Progressive camp...or whether it will dissolve into warring tribes of variously "Pure" Conservatives who are unable to make a distinctive case to the American people about their vision for our Republic. There is a Rorschachian quality to the Tea Party movement, and much can be gleaned from any given individual's reading of its leaves.

Personally, I find that terribly exciting.

EDIT (1/14/2010) in last paragraph to make it, you know, make sense.


Mike said...

OK, I am admittedly quite out of the loop. Work time pressure has for the last few weeks led me to reduce my daily news crawl to strictly tech and financial news (it's better now and I hope to resume my normal news crawl in the next few days). Further, I haven't actually been in the U.S. in nearly a year so I don't really know what's going on on the ground so to speak.

That said, one thing in you post strikes me as odd: You seem to imply that these tea party folks all speak with one voice or are at least fairly homogeneous in their political will. From what I've seen and read (which, again, is very limited and I could easily be suffering from sampling bias) this doesn't seem to be the case at all.

To me, they seem to run the gamut from plain, rational libertarians all the way to red necks who object to having a "jungle monkey" as president. And no single group amongst them really seems to stand out.

Am I wrong about this? Is there actually a definable "Tea Party platform?" Or are these just folks of various political stripes protesting the current status quo?

Noocyte said...

Oh, far from homogeneous! Indeed, as is to be expected from a truly grass-roots movement, there are so many differences along so very many dimensions that there's anything but a guarantee that the whole works won't fly apart at the seams.

Again, as with any movement, there are deep thinkers and knuckleheads aplenty. I do, however, believe that the allegedly racist character of the Tea Partiers is deliberately, tactically inflated in the MSM, in an effort to splash them with something which is still justly radioactive (though the intensity of that radioactivity is regrettably but definitely fading from over-use!). Are there racists among the Tea Partiers? Of course. Like Chris Rock said that everyone's got a molester uncle somewhere, so every movement of sufficient size will have racists and other assorted miscreants (shall we talk about the eugenicists of the 20th-century Progressive movement?)

These people come from all over the political landscape, and their sets of issues are similarly diverse. The limited sense in which they do speak with one voice is in opposing the overreach of power bases (government, corporate, bureaucratic, etc.) and the parasitic tax structures and increasingly paralyzing debts/deficits which feed them (or, in the case of corporate interests, the cozy regulatory schemes which enable them to crush competition and distort free and fair markets). That's pretty much as close as they come to a common platform. I am of the opinion that it could be enough, if it does not become unduly yoked to any of the sub-issues which its many members bring to it. As was stated hopefully in the second article I linked, "the Tea Parties would be a very serious development in which anti-big business forces would finally join with anti-big government forces to create a genuine free-market party that would maximize the opportunities of the little guy." A positive platform of enriched opportunity for free-market solutions, fiscal restraint at the top, and incentives for the growth of prosperity from the 'bottom' seems a fine framework for a platform with room for all kinds of superstructures atop it. We'll see.

Do vet your sources even more carefully than usual on this one, droog; there are very strong incentives in some circles to depict the movement as crashing inexorably toward its disintegration at the hands of the slack-jawed yokels who are just running around trying to wreck shit for Jebus or something....or are they cunningly-manipulated pawns of the GOP Establishment...or paid and bussed-in operatives of that establishment. I lose track sometimes. Don't. You. Believe it. The jury is still way out on this.

P.S., know what you mean about the not a lot of spare time thing (noticed the dates of my blog posts lately?). Glad to hear the clouds are breaking. And, of course, stoked to hang out in Feb!

Mike said...

Cool, this is an interesting phenomenon then, and bears watching. I have a REALLY hard time being optimistic about anything in the U.S. these days but if this thing develops legs, maybe there is some hope a couple generations down the line.