Certainly Effervescent

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The Tea Party Movement And The False Promise of Nostalgia

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The New Yorker has a good-ish piece delving into the details of the Tea Party movement. I say good-ish because, while fair-handed (read: not hysterical or Frank Rich-y), it’s incomplete. Ben McGrath, the author, does a good job of showing the everyday quality of many Tea Partiers. I’ve told plenty of my liberal friends that they mock the “teabaggers” at their peril. People in “flyover” country might not listen to NPR, might avoid foreign films, and might eat fast food, but they do have the Internet. It’s a wrongheaded movement (more on that in a second), but I can tell you that much of the animating force of the Tea Partiers comes from a strong feeling that they are forced to know every detail of the Coasts’ political positions, all the while being ignored, stereotyped, and belittled. It got mocked by later pundits, but Nixon won the presidency with his “silent majority” campaign. In the interest of clarity, allow me to list a few things about the Tea Party:

  1. It’s not a conspiracy of corporate interests. As much as the Left might carp about FreedomWorks and the Koch Corporation, this has legitimate grassroots momentum, and needs to be addressed as such.
  2. They know what you are saying about them. I see this increasingly from the College Town Left and some MSM commentators, behaving like mothers conversing at the weekly play-together for their toddlers. They talk about the Tea Party movement as if it can’t understand the conversation, that they can discuss the ludicrousness of the protests, the hidden racism, blah blah blah, and the “poor widdle Teabaggers” just keep puttering along in ignorance. Bad move. My grandmother, who is slightly more than email-conversant, knows on a daily basis what Rachel Maddow is saying about my grandmother’s politics, and bears the grudge accordingly.
  3. The hoary “no one believes in us” analogy from underdog sports teams applies here. It would take waaaay too long to inspect why the “us against the world” mentality is so potent, so we’ll take it for granted here. As a relative of several Tea Party types (think “Legalize the Constitution” on a bumper sticker on a truck), I can say authoritatively that many of them cherish the opposition. It’s a kind of “if MSNBC-host-hates-me is wrong, I don’t want to be right” position. So, just as a team that’s favored to win must take the underdog team seriously in preparation, so must the rest of the country should address the Tea Party faction seriously. I shall try a little bit of that here, but saying that
  4. The Tea Party movement has misread America and is so conflicted in goals as to render itself impotent.

For example, while every movement is made up of factions, there is some unifying goal that brings them all into a compromise on issues of disagreement. Think social conservatives, foreign policy hawks uniting under anti-Communism. May I humbly ask: what banner would this motley band march under?

As spring passed into summer, the scores at local Tea Party gatherings turned to hundreds, and then thousands, collecting along the way footloose Ron Paul supporters, goldbugs, evangelicals, Atlas Shruggers, militiamen, strict Constitutionalists, swine-flu skeptics, scattered 9/11 “truthers,” neo-“Birchers,” and, of course, “birthers”—those who remained convinced that the President was a Muslim double agent born in Kenya.

Before someone says “less government”, think of how vague that is. Less how? Less regulation of Wall Street (highly doubt that would have much support anywhere)? How about cutting the size of the U.S. military? I just did a 10 minute perusal of the Tea Party sites and saw writings for the following positions: (1) for the increase of freedom-of-religious expression in public, (2) repeal a significant chunk of environmental regulations, (3) low taxes, (4) making government “listen” to the people, (5) constitutional limits on federal government, (6) government enactment of trade tariffs and subsidies for American workers, (7) governmental protection of heterosexual marriage, (8) strong border control. I know they all say “small government”, but there are so many ways that that mandate can be interpreted.

So, in the face of such uncertain motivation, I’m going to posit that the Tea Party movement is driven by a more nebulous (but ultimately more dangerous) emotion of nostalgia. The aforementioned “silent majority” longs for the days when they felt they had input on everything: whether it be music, movies, politics, or business. It doesn’t really matter that some of the times they have nostalgia for never really existed: it’s the idea that America once used to be a place that was predominantly Judeo-Christian (strong emphasis on the “Christian”), culturally unified, and the Land of Opportunity and Freedom is the important thing. The closing lines of the New Yorker piece involve some Tea Partiers singing:

Take it back,
Take our country back.
Our way of life is now under attack.
Draw a line in the sand, so they all understand
And our values stay intact.
Take it back.

And, if you get a chance to discuss it with a Tea Partier, ask them “where is this “back” you refer to? Do you have an era in mind?” And any era they will probably mention (at least this side of the Civil War) will be different than they remember. 1950’s? Go check the top income tax rates and get back to me. 1980’s? But I thought you worried about deficit spending!

And that leads me to my other critique of the Tea Party movement: they’ve misread the country. Another way to describe the Tea Partiers mantra is to say that they are crying for a return to “First Principles”: ideas espoused in the Federalist Papers and Constitution, Founding Fathers as role models, I mean even the name refers to the Revolutionary War. It’s the same call that I have heard from evangelicals and conservatives since I was young. “If we are to go forward as followers of God,” says the pastor, “we must remember [basic principle x] and start following it anew.” The Republicans can regain power by reclaiming [founding idea y] and acting upon it. They can win by being more conservative, not less!” brays the talk-radio host.

I used to believe this, and more importantly, I can still empathize with the intoxicating effects of believing these things. The Ideal World is so close if these things are true- all it takes is a few steps back to something we used to do, and we’re back on track. But it’s a false promise.

Jonah Goldberg said once that he thought many modern conservatives had underestimated the effect the automobile and highway system had left on the traditional way of life. So much of traditional wisdom, Goldberg said, is predicated on difficulty of travel: when it takes 3 days to go 100 miles, families stay closer together, views remain conveniently local, the newspaper decidedly provincial. Put in the Interstate Highway, and mobility nearly destroys all of that. I find this idea perhaps Goldberg’s strongest point I’ve ever heard him make.

If that was done by the car, what exactly is the Internet doing? Whereas if some teen were to question his sexuality in the 1940s, he or she would be quickly, and often brutally, reminded that that was an unacceptable path. Today, one can go on YouTube and see hundreds of videos of fellow gay and lesbian teens living safe and happy lives, and be encouraged. Satellite television has allowed a greater specialization of taste. You liked polka in the 1960s? Tough luck, kid: Dick Clark ain’t putting no accordion on American Band Stand. You like ska today? There are hundreds of sites available to post comments and fanmail.

The point I’m trying to make is that, in some ways because of technology, the effectiveness of First Principles has been fatally crippled. And, as the Patrol Magazine editors put it:

The fight to define evangelicalism in its latter days also operates on the mistaken premise that an imagined theological purity or conformance to a “lost” orthodoxy, rather than an emphasis on ethics, spiritual discipline and mystery, will revive the power of the Christian church. It is astonishing that so many intelligent Christians seem to believe there is a deficit in emphasis on evangelism and scriptural literalism, and that, if the hatches are just battened down on a more solid “worldview,” evangelicalism can resume explaining the universe to new generations of believers. In this respect, evangelicalism’s true believers resemble the faction of the Republican Party that asserts with a straight face that returning to “core principles,” and not a radical restructuring of priorities, will bring waves of Americans back to the right wing.

Going back to the false promise: it’s so intoxicating because of its simplicity, but being simple doesn’t make it true. The unfortunate reality is that (1) we can’t go back, and (2) no one really knows what to go back to. That’s how potent the World Wide Web has been to changing the world. As someone put it once, the current generation of youth is the first in a long time, possibly ever, to possess technology that quickly exceeds their parents’ morality. Unlike our grandparents burning our parents records, my teenage brother knows his way around every firewall and has a facility with technology that boggles my parents’ brains. A return to “first principles” in this case would not only be bull-headed, it would be pathetically useless.

So the Tea Partiers think that the simple Davey-and-Goliath nostalgia they all feel is worthy of fighting for. Too bad so few other people agree with that. Another side effect of the information superhighway is that we can access the unattractive truths of a time period that destroy the myth-y bubble of nostalgia. There once was a time when parents could tell their kids of The Good Old Days, and the kids, with no other data, would believe them. Today: you show me Leave It To Beaver or Lassie, I show you Selma or Roy Cohn.

The sooner the MSM and Left understand that these are honest-but-misguided emotions on the part of the Tea Party crowd, the sooner they can effectively address the arguments and cause the Tea Partiers to do a little soul-searching, something the modern evangelicals and modern Right seem to have too-little of at the moment.

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Written by C.S. Stieber

January 25, 2010 at 8:46 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I’ve written about the ineffective incoherency of the Tea Party movement before. I had a close friend of mine (who’s a die-hard Tea Partier) read it and he admitted that the criticism had some validity. He disagreed with my conclusion at large, but he said that it was some of the first criticism he’d read/heard that was actually familiar with the Tea Partiers. If I, a somewhat-interested doofus, can do that, I think it’s fair to demand from our intellectuals the same level of familiarity. […]


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