Defending the tea parties
In the comments to my tea party post, Freddie writes:
It would help, you know, if you didn’t caricature my argument, or insert terms I didn’t use. Indeed, the point isn’t that they are redneck or that they are racist, but rather that they are, like all people who have found themselves leaving a position of political privilege, scared and angry. That you can’t take that as anything other than racism reveals again that you are a poor student of history, Erik, and you act out against those who call you on it.
At some point, there’s just got to be an acknowledgment of this bare fact: all of these soi disant dissident conservatives, bohemian libertarians and reform Republicans– they are not like the Tea Partiers. And you know they aren’t. What’s the biggest tell? They don’t live where the Tea Partiers live. How many of the self-styled defenders of the Tea Party movement live where the Tea Partiers live? How many conservatives writing for <i>The Atlantic</i> or libertarians at Cato live in rural Texas or the Mississippi Delta? When do you think the last time was that your average boho DC blogger had a real Tea Partier over to their home? How often does your average pomo conservative or libertarian go out for beers with a genuine Tea Partier? What percentage of the real Tea Party protests, do you think, are from New York and DC?
Ah, you say, that just goes to show how close minded you are! But it doesn’t, though. It shows how close minded <i>they</i> are. Because they have explicitly and consistently defined themselves culturally. <i>You can ask them</i>. It’s all over their signs and literature. What did they say about Sarah Palin in the proto-Tea Party moment? They said, "She’s just like us. She’s one of us." She wasn’t– she was always rich, and now she’s downright <i>wealthy</i>–but she plays the game by hating the right people and defining herself <i>against</i> the right people. You really think that all that talk of the "real America" didn’t mean anything? You think that doesn’t have anything to do with how this country is changing? Or did you just ignore that like you ignore everything they say, so that you can foist more and more virtues onto them that they don’t possess and <i>don’t want</i>. What do they have to do to convince you that they are serious when they say that they don’t like who they don’t like? How many signs does it take? How many slogans?
That’s the bottom line here: there are an awful lot of fantasy going on. You throw on so many wonderful virtues to people who are not like you, because you are using them. They are a symbol for you, a political mass to be exploited. <i>They are telling you they are not like you</i>. I assure you, when they constantly attack the "college elite" or whatever is their preferred euphemism at the time, they are saying, among other things, "we don’t like people who write thought provoking blog posts on the Theogony." What planet do you live on where that is not the case? Ask yourself, Erik, really ask yourself, what percentage of Tea Partiers would slur Andrew Sullivan and his husband in a heartbeat if they had a chance? 50%? 60%? You’ll rush to deny that there’s any element of homophobia in the Tea Parties, but I’ve <i>read their signs</i>. I’ve read their literature. I go to their websites. I don’t have the time for pleasant fantasy.
I don’t have the time, and I won’t permit myself, because the beginning of respect, the precondition for respect, is listening to people and extending to them the right to self-define. That’s the laurel I’ll give them that you won’t. I’ll actually extend to them the courtesy of listening to them, rather than inventing some idealized version of them for my own ends. And it’s because I listen to them that I don’t respect them. I don’t respect their incoherent political platform. I don’t respect their fear mongering. I don’t respect their conspiracy theorizing. I don’t respect the hundreds– hundreds– of flat out offensive signs and images that you and I have both seen at their rallies. Me, personally, I’d rather be disrespected for who I actually am and what I actually say than respected as a symbol or a fantasy.
What the Tea Partiers tell me, in so many ways, is that they are my enemy. And so they are.
I’m not sure that it makes sense to respond to each of these points. So let me first say that most of what Freddie is writing here is a straw man. I have never been a loud defender of the tea parties, nor have I foisted virtues upon the tea party movement which don’t exist. Indeed, if anything I have spent a good deal more time and ink criticizing the tea parties than I have spent defending them. Freddie is right – this isn’t my movement, nor do I think I would much fit in at the rallies or with the folk out there proclaiming that they are in fact the “true conservatives” or supporting someone like J.D. Hayworth who says things such as “Like the liberals, John McCain opposes water-boarding terrorists like the Christmas bomber.” I may very well register as a Republican for the first time ever just to vote for McCain in the primaries!
Reading through the issues up for a vote in the Contract From America, it’s hard to take most of them terribly seriously, and while Mark is right that they are tightly focused on fiscal and economic issues, it’s hard to ascertain any coherent economic or political philosophy from the list. The only consistent thread is reflexive anti-taxation which is neither new or unique. And while some of the ideas are good ones, it’s hard to take the entire batch seriously. Sooner or later, as certain groups develop more mature policy prescriptions the larger movement will splinter. Some elements will be absorbed into the Mt. Vernon establishment which will gain some new faces but little else. The remaining elements will be outsiders, and perhaps even morph into a third party. But that group will be more extreme, more ideologically “pure” and thus even less relevant than the mainstream elites.
I have previously written that the Tea Party movement is similar to a glorified revolutionary war reenactment. I have written against the reflexive anti-tax sentiment of the Tea Parties. And while, on occasion, I have mused with optimism that the tea parties represent a new beginning, a move toward a better sort of conservatism in the future, I am largely cynical that this is the case (except that perhaps the more extreme elements on the right will end up self-destructing and will be resurrected as something wholly different and better…) I am not starry-eyed about my relationship to the tea parties. I may as well be an ‘elite’ and a RINO and all those other slurs and slings and arrows and talking points.
And I have no love for populism. I am a decentralist at heart, a neo-Burkean anti-revolutionary, much more than I am a modern conservative. I distrust revanchist causes and the culture wars – hallmarks of the Tea Party movement. (Indeed, in that first link in the previous sentence, I call the conservative movement a fraud and as evidence I cite the birth of the Tea Party movement.)
Again – lest I be misunderstood – I have no love for the Tea Parties, nor any really for the beltway elites or the establishment. I distrust populism, whether it is progressive or revanchist. I think the Tea Party movement is doomed to failure – to splinter and discord, etc. Despite any hopes I may have or have had, in the end I devolve into cynicism.
And yet, I also think that saying the entire movement is merely an expression of racism based on fear of losing privilege is false, and wrong, and an arrogant claim. It is wrong in the way that saying progressives are secretly all socialists bent on overthrowing the constitution is wrong. It is a gross generalization that serves no purpose except to make the dividing lines even more clear than they already are – to make certain that our opponents are not only opponents, but enemies. To be defeated at all costs.
That’s fine. We all need enemies, I suppose. And since some of the people we see on T.V. are holding racist signs, that must mean that the entire Tea Party movement is racist. We certainly don’t need to actually go down there and talk with them, learn about them, understand them as humans. This notion that we are letting them “self-define” by accepting the caricatures of them that we’ve been spoon-fed by the media and commentariat is patently absurd. To understand the “other” and their self-definition we have to go a lot further than conventional wisdom.
I agree with Freddie on some of the merits, of course. I don’t agree with the TP’s incoherent platform either (as I note in that quote above!), nor their foreign policy (though I have slim hopes that it will change), nor those among them who hoist up offensive signs, or rattle the sabers of the culture war, or denounce our president as a fake or a fascist. I have no respect for grown people acting like children. I am much more comfortable in a college bar or at a quirky downtown coffee shop than railing against Big Gummint. My vision is for a bohemian conservatism, after all, a decentralist Utopia.
So it’s easy to see the Tea Partiers as a bunch of knuckle-draggers spouting off racist slogans and thumping the nationalist war drum. But do they all? Does the entire movement act this way? Are those particularly bad folk we see on TV really representative of the entire movement? I doubt it. It only helps us to help them “self-define” so that we can better be enemies. Which makes sense. This is politics after all. Somebody always loses. Better it be our enemies.