There was much talk of capitalism at the New York City Tea Party. Where there is talk of capitalism, there are Ayn Rand-ers, and where there are Ayn Rand-ers, there exists the possibility that one of them is still sore about National Review’s 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, written by Whittaker Chambers. I made the mistake of introducing myself to one of these with a joke about the one-sided feud between National Review and Rand, thinking, with great certainty and great wrongness, that nobody under 60 still would be hot about that tailfins-era brouhaha. The fellow handed me back my card as though I’d offered him a piece of month-old sushi and declared that he wanted nothing to do with people such as myself. Chambers had criticized Rand for her “inflexibly self-righteous stance.” Can’t imagine where he got that idea.
There was an interesting coalition assembled for the Tea Party, and my unscientific sampling suggests it was about two-thirds regular Joes and about one-third people who are involved, in some way, with heterogeneous political enterprises, whether Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty, Libertarian- or Republican-party factions, anti-tax and anti-Fed groups, and the like. The regular Joes with whom I spoke were almost to a man talk-radio listeners, and their cheery ferocity makes me suspect that even conservatives have failed to truly appreciate the reach and power of that medium. There were some single-issue fanatics, inevitably, including one colorful clown who kept shouting “Abolish the Fed!” with the occasional improvised expletive. Another fellow was explaining, with great animation, that Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada was a converted Jew (this would have come as a surprise to his uncle, Cardinal Juan de Torquemada) and that various Jewish and Islamic tendencies, including the concept of machismo, had been imported into the New World by the conquistadors, most of whom were conversos as well, and that this apparently has something or other to do with something or other. One meets these sorts of characters in political crowds, and one learns to dread obsessions with matters Semitic, or mentions of the Knights Templar.
There is an inverse relationship between the specificity of political ideas and the sanity of political ideas. There are sensible people who are generally liberal and sensible people who are generally conservative, and then there are passionately deontological libertarians slugging it out with angrily consequentialist libertarians, or Objectivists affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute vs. Objectivists loyal to the Atlas Society, because A is A, damn all heretics. I met a fellow at the Tea Party who described himself as an anarchist, and it seemed natural to us both that I asked him: “More of a Rothbard guy, or more of a Proudhon guy?” One wouldn’t want to associate with the wrong sort! The scattered nuts in the tea-party mix showed great specificity: abolish the Fed, or adopt a new tax code, or abolish the Fed, or legalize homosexual marriage, or abolish the Fed, or whatever.
The main body of the crowd, though quite well-informed (Rush Limbaugh’s audience, a Pew study finds, is significantly better informed than that of NewsHour or The Daily Show) had sensibly vague political preferences: lower taxes, a better tax code, less spending, more responsible fiscal and monetary policies, loosening the permanent parasitic political class’s stranglehold on the apparatus of government, &c. Some are a little more interested in fiscal conservatism, some a little more interested in social-religious conservatism, some are a little more libertarian, but they’re part of the American mainstream, without any demands that are overzealous in their particularity. These are people an organized conservative movement can work with — smart, moderate, well-informed, broadly conservative. But they are not the people who normally show up to undertake the drudgery of operational politics. Give or take a tax-day protest rally, normal, sensible people have better things to do. That’s always been one of American conservatism’s handicaps: Our natural constituency has jobs and families.
Considering the tea-party crowd, I wonder: Is an effective national political coalition of the Right still possible? The old Fusionism articulated by National Review produced a broadly unified Right in part because it was a reaction to a deeply unified Left characterized by Communism abroad and by streams of leftist thought in Europe and the United States that were to various extents sympathetic with Marxist analysis and revolutionary hostility toward tradition, church, family, and — above all — capitalism. Today’s Left isn’t really much like the Left to which Fusionism was a response: It retains the hostility toward church and tradition, but its hostility is adolescent, not revolutionary. Comfortably embedded in the managerial class, progressives have made their peace with the organs and fruits of capitalism, if not its philosophy. There was an element of class warfare in the Obama movement, but it wasn’t an uprising of the proletariat — it was the grad-schooled upper-middle-class’s imposition of its values on the rest of society. Governor Palin wasn’t denounced as an enemy of the people, but as a hick. That’s a different kind of thing to oppose and to manage, especially for a conservative movement that has its own share of grad-schooled upper-middle-class allegiances. I wonder how many conservative columnists and wonks are truly comfortable in a crowd of people chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Unless I am at Mass, I am uncomfortable in crowds of chanting people, even when they’re chanting slogans I endorse. Rush Limbaugh is the master articulator of populist conservatism, with no trace of snobbery in him, but it is difficult to picture him chanting.
I believe the tea-party movement is a healthy and worthwhile development. But is it conservative? It is good for the people to sometimes shake their fists at The Man, and The Man should take it seriously. Politics necessitates compromise, but I wonder if the people at the Tea Party want the same things, or want enough of the same things to cohere, and to cohere in a movement that is recognizably conservative. And if they do want enough of the same things, I wonder what those things are — because I was there, and I am not sure.