The much-analyzed speeches at the Glenn Beck Lincoln Memorial rally weren’t as notable as what the estimated 300,000 attendees did: follow instructions, listen quietly to hours of speeches, and throw out their trash.
Just as stunning as the tableaux of the massive throngs lining the reflecting pool were the images of the spotless grounds afterward. If someone had told attendees they were expected to mow the grass before they left, surely some of them would have hitched flatbed trailers to their vehicles for the trip to Washington and gladly brought mowers along with them.
This was the revolt of the bourgeois, of the responsible, of the orderly, of people profoundly at peace with the traditional mores of American society. The spark that lit the tea-party movement was the rant by CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, who inveighed in early 2009 against an Obama-administration program to subsidize “the losers’ mortgages.” He was speaking for people who hadn’t borrowed beyond their means or tried to get rich quick by flipping houses, for the people who, in their thrift and enterprise, “carry the water instead of drink the water.”
The tea party’s detractors want to paint it as radical, when at bottom it represents the self-reliant, industrious heart of American life. New York Times columnist David Brooks compares the tea partiers to the New Left. But there weren’t any orgiastic displays at the Beck rally, nor any attempts to levitate the Lincoln Memorial — just speeches on God and country. It was as radical as a Lee Greenwood song.
A New York Times survey earlier this year occasioned shock when it found that “Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, and are no more or less afraid of falling into a lower socioeconomic class.” We’re so accustomed to the notion of a revolt of the dispossessed that a revolt of the possessed (in the non-demonic sense, of course) strikes us as a strange offense against the nature of things. But it’s threatening to wash away the Democratic congressional majorities in a historic wipeout.
In extremis, Democrats and liberal commentators have dragged the debate over the tea party into the well-worn rut of elite condescension to the bourgeois, a term coined in its modern sense by Rousseau and not meant as a compliment. For more than a hundred years, the bourgeois have been accused of being insipid, greedy, and unenlightened. To the long catalogue of their offenses can now be added another: unenthralled by Barack Obama, the Romantic hero seeking to transform the nation.
The tea party represents a revolt against his revolution, and thus a restoration. If a tea-party-infused Republican party were to take Congress and manage to cut federal expenditures by a sharp one-fifth, that figure would only be back to its typical level of recent decades of roughly 20 percent of GDP. If the party were to succeed in making the federal government more mindful of its constitutional limits, it would only be a step toward the dispensation that obtained during most of the country’s history.
To be sure, the tea partiers are fiercely anti-establishment, and that produces political candidates who are exotic and unexpected. Then there’s Beck himself. As he’d probably be the first to admit, he’s an unlikely leader for the disaffected bourgeois. He’s emotionally extravagant and conspiracy-minded, an intellectual enthusiast and rollicking showman.
The last time Republicans benefited from a wave election, they had their own Beckian figure at the top in the person of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They wallowed in their revolution and let Gingrich’s ideological grandeur define them — to their regret in the end. If the wave comes this time, Republicans should endeavor to be a sober and responsible party for sober and responsible people, resolutely cleaning up after the failed Obama revolution.
They could do much worse than to take their cue from the tea partiers at the Lincoln Memorial, who knew how to make an impression without scaring anyone or trashing the place.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, email@example.com. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.