Politics & Policy

Reading the Tea Party Leaves

The tea partiers aren't radicals; they're one side of an old debate that is far from over.

If you read the op-ed pages these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the GOP and the conservative movement have been taken over by know-nothing mobs, anti-intellectual demagogues, and pitchfork-wielding bigots. There’s no omnibus label for this argument, but it’s a giveaway that a person subscribes to it if he or she describes the tea-party movement as the “tea baggers,” an awfully telling bit of sophomoric condescension from the camp that affects a pose of being more high-minded.

The case against the tea-party movement is constantly evolving. Initially, they were written off as “astroturfers,” faux populists paid by K Street lobbyists to provide damaging footage for Fox News’s Obama coverage. Then they were deemed racists who couldn’t handle having a black president.

But now that the movement — or, more broadly, the Obama backlash – has become so widespread, it’s being chalked up to populist anti-elitism. New York Times columnist David Brooks and others argue that the tea-party movement is kith and kin of the 1960s New Left, because they share a “radically anti-conservative” hatred of “the system” and a desire to start over.

Brooks was seconding an article by Michael Lind in Salon in which Lind argues that the right has become a “counterculture [that] refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the rules of the game that it has lost” (respect for rules is an ironic benchmark given the lengths to which the Democrats are going to pass Obamacare in Congress). Whereas the Luddites and know-nothings once dropped out for the “Summer of Love,” today’s Luddites and know-nothings have signed up for the “Winter of Hate.”

It’s all just so much nonsense. The Boston Tea Party would make a strange lodestar for an anti-American movement. The tea partiers certainly aren’t “dropping out” of the system; if they were, we wouldn’t be talking about them. And they aren’t reading Marxist tracts in a desire to “tear down the system” either. They’re reading Thomas Paine, the founders, and Friedrich Hayek in the perhaps naïve hope that they’ll be able to restore the principles that are supposed to be guiding the system. (To the extent they’re reading radicals such as Saul Alinsky, it’s because they’ve been told that’s the best way to understand his disciple in the White House.)

Restoration and destruction are hardly synonymous terms or desires. And maybe that’s a better label for the tea parties: a political restoration movement, one that reflects our Constitution and the precepts of limited government.

The restorationists are neither anti-elitist nor anti-intellectual. William F. Buckley famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than the Harvard faculty, but few would dispute that the Latin-speaking harpsichord player who used summer and winter as verbs was anything but an elitist. Similarly, the restorationists hold any number of intellectuals as heroes, from Buckley and Thomas Sowell to Hayek and Ayn Rand.

The “elite” the restorationists dislike is better understood as a “new class” (to borrow a phrase from the late Irving Kristol). The legendary economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted in 1942 that capitalism couldn’t survive because capitalist prosperity would feed a new intellectual caste that would declare war on the bourgeois values and institutions that generate prosperity in the first place. When you hear that conservatives are anti-elitist, you should think they’re really anti–new class. Conservatives see this new class of managers, meddlers, planners, and scolds as a kind of would-be secular aristocracy empowered to declare war on traditional arrangements and make other decisions “for your own good.”

And that’s why Obama backlash is part of the culture war. Defenders of Obamacare, cap-and-trade, and the rest of the Democratic agenda insist that they’re merely applying the principles of good governance and the lessons of sound, sober-minded policymaking. No doubt there’s some truth to that, at least in terms of their motives. But from a broader perspective, it is obvious that theirs is a cultural agenda as well.

The quest for single-payer health care is not primarily grounded in good economics or in good politics but in a heartfelt ideological desire for “social justice.” The constant debate over whether the “European model” is better than ours often sounds like an empirical debate, but at its core it’s a cultural and philosophical argument that stretches back more than a century.

The restorationists reside on one side of that debate, while the Obama administration and the bulk of the progressive establishment reside on the other. And that debate is far from over.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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