Saturday, January 9, 2010

Palin, Paul, Brooks, and Tea Parties

I was delighted to see Ron Paul lauding the Tea Party movement on CNN last night, reacting to the news that Sarah Palin will be speaking at the Tea Party Convention in one month. I’ve said before I don’t think she can become president, but I’ve also said she’d have my support — batty or not — if she ends up being the one major-party candidate who really promotes the anti-centralization, anti-socialism themes of the Tea Party movement (by contrast, Romney socialized medicine in Massachusetts). Similarly, unlike most people, I’d like her more, not less, if she went back to flirting with ideas like Alaska secession. Palin/Perry 2012 would be an interesting two-governor ticket, and conservatives inclined to turn their noses up at the idea are, so to speak, part of the problem.

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.


It'sTrue! said...

The only reason Ron Paul likes the Tea Party folks is that he heard Chris Matthews say that their rallies were full of nothing but white people….and Paul doesn’t consider Jews to be white people.

Todd Seavey said...

Ron Paul practically wrote the playbook for the Tea Parties, which the momentum of his following and his anti-government books such as _The Revolution: A Manifesto_ no doubt helped engender. To reduce him or the Tea Parties to anti-Semitism is insane. You make Chris Matthews sound objective.

Sammler said...

You speak of “making use of” the Tea Party movement… are you prepared to change that to “subsuming your goals into” theirs?

Todd Seavey said...

It’s a group effort.

It'sTrue! said...

Ron Paul is an anti-Semite. His association with Tea Parties will be anti-Semitic. I’m not looking forward to large clusters of posters at Tea Party rallies complaining about financial support for Israel. They’re probably coming, though.

Todd Seavey said...

Well, I’ve been to about three Tea Party rallies, and they were thoroughly focused on spending issues. The closest they came to touching on foreign matters was probably a few statements _supporting_ troops, so the crowds might even skew toward rather than away from foreign entanglements, for good or ill. But that simply wasn’t a central issue, which is all the more reason to be happy about the Tea Parties. Let spending cuts be the unifying issue the way Grover Norquist long made tax cuts the unifying issue (back before we realized the government was crazy enough to cut taxes while continuing to increase spending [Laffer wiggle-room notwithstanding]).

Gerard said...

…have the people who make the Tea Parties sound unruly not been to any other protests?

Well put.

As someone who participated in Operation Liberty Rising, where members of Protest Warrior were physically assaulted by vicious hordes of self-proclaimed anarchists on camera, and has actually been attacked at the Marxist equivalent of these rallies, I have to say that the tea parties are probably the most non-violent political events I’ve ever experienced in New York City.

As for the philosophical content, while not quite up to the snuff of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard or Baruch Spinoza, I have to concede that they were much more ideologically cogent than the archetypal left wing rally I attended with my People’s Cube cohort, whose central theme can be distilled to the phrase “capitalism sux.”

For what it’s worth, I’ve had personal conversations with the main organizer of the tea party movement here, and he’s very upset that anti-illegal “migrant” organizations like ALIPAC, and my own group, NY ICE, have used the tea party appellation in their own protests and rallies. So that should be further encouragement, unless you-like me-think it’s a bit absurd to claim proprietary rights to a broadly used phrase that’s been in the public domain for centuries.