And that brings us to David Brooks, who tried, in his way, to say nice things about the Tea Party movement in his January 5 column — likening its energy to the historically-pivotal enthusiasm of the hippies in the 60s — causing to me to start thinking I’d have to revise my opinion of the big-government-loving, Canadian-born man of mush. But he just had to ruin things in the very last paragraph by saying, “Personally, I’m not a fan of this movement.” He also hates populism and Palin (calling her a cancer on the Republican Party, though I think Brooks is the cancer — and am pleased a search for “David Brooks cancer” still yields my comments to that effect among the first hits). For all I know, he has already half-written a column going completely mental over the fact that she’s going to speak at the Tea Party Convention instead of the more mainstream annual CPAC gathering.
Now, I can readily understand non-leftist intellectuals looking with disdain at any political movement that doesn’t seem to have all of its principles clearly spelled out, all the ideological i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but the Tea Party movement, while boisterous, is surely better in this regard than either of the two major parties (probably helping to explain why, as Brooks notes, it’s currently more popular than either of the two parties), with its rallies explicitly calling for budget cuts, resistance to socialism, an end to stimulus spending, a return to constitutional limits on government, and so on.
We normally listen to mush-mouthed moderates from the two parties vaguely promise change, hope, and good times for America, with its solid families who love work and whatnot — but everything even halfway good that the Republican Party has ever accomplished has been due to upsurges in ideological fervor (Goldwater, Reagan, Gingrich, even Ron Paul), and it was never crucial that the ideology be perfectly consistent or spelled out by academic philosophers. You just need enough ideology to keep the masses aimed in the same direction, as it were. We’re trying to keep America free here, ultimately, not get an A+ on a philosophy exam — much as I might enjoy that exam.
By contrast, the mushy, Brooks-like folk (including Sam Tanenhaus, whose book lamenting what he sees as the overly-ideological tone of the GOP I’ll write about at a later date) push an unconvincing alternate history in which party moderates and non-ideologues supposedly got all the work done. And if by “work,” you mean excessive spending and regulation that might as well have been crafted by the Democrats, then, sure, the moderates and non-ideologues have done a lot of work. This is like saying a senator is “good” because he got a lot of legislation passed, as though legislation is an inherently good product. (What sort of legislation?)
At the same time that I want ideology in my party politics, though, I recognize that when philosophy hits the streets, it has to take a watered-down, coalition-maintaining, more sloganeering form (whether right, left, or otherwise). When my parents attended a Tea Party rally in Connecticut — the first protest these mild-mannered folk had ever been to in their lives, despite being Boomers — we might all wish that they were carrying white papers from the Heritage Foundation, copies of Thomas Sowell books, reams of statistics, and some essays on Rawls just to make sure they were hearing the other side, but in reality they were there armed mainly with (a) the worry that government is deficit-spending our futures away and (b) a willingness to applaud and cheer those publicly vowing to help make that the nation’s new top priority.
If people like Brooks turn their noses up at that, it fuels my worry that there are virtually no real conservatives in public intellectual life — since a popular anti-government movement, you’d think, is exactly what we’ve been longing for. It is something that right-leaning or pro-market intellectuals should be helping by adding theory to existing practice, like Frank Meyer helpfully lending a “fusionist” philosophical gloss to the pre-existing alliance of traditionalists and free-marketeers. Otherwise, prominent potential candidates like Huckabee (who I saw at the latest Stossel taping I attended, a show on food regulations likely to air in a few weeks) will continue to feel comfortable painting themselves as conservatives while running in the opposite direction from the Tea Party movement, lambasting libertarians and spreading the evil and familiar message that welfare statism is the compassionate alternative to cut-throat markets.
Politicians will almost always be opportunistic people willing to utter logically-inconsistent slogans from whatever seems to be the popular script at the moment. I have no plan to cure that problem, nor does anyone else. So, cynical as it may sound to some, I suggest that intellectuals, instead of carping, work on providing politicians with a Tea Party-based script that turns as many anti-government Tea Party goals as possible into real policy. There’s momentum here and a chance for interesting synergy between popular discontent, Obama overreach, Ron Paul-spurred libertarian impulses within the GOP, Tea Party enthusiasm, economic uncertainty, and Palin/Perry-style anti-Washington sentiment. I would be ashamed of myself if I looked back and said I squandered this juncture in history by sneering at the Tea Partiers (my parents included), chuckling along with the likes of Chris Matthews, who irked black Tea Party organizers by calling the movement “monochromatic” and white.
Hell, I’ll proudly wear a Palin button in Manhattan if that’s how all this has to go down.
Who imagined we’d suffer for such a short time under Democratic rule, really, before the chance arose to write a new defining political narrative for this period? With that chance before us, there’s no honor in simply picking up your marbles and going home, waiting for the day when the Tea Party crowd develops better manners. (And speaking of that, on a more pragmatic note, have the people who make the Tea Parties sound unruly not been to any other protests? Seen the vandalism, the traffic-blocking, the retaliatory tear gas, the routinely deranged slogans?) If we’re too proud to make use of this, I don’t know what sort of opportunity we are waiting for. Likely none.