Magazine | October 5, 2009, Issue

Right Turn on Main Street

(Darren Gygi)
Thank goodness for the tea-party crowd and their collective anti-collectivism

‘The people! United! Can never be defeated!”


You need a bit of collectivism for street protest, which may be why conservatives have never been much good at it. I don’t mean merely in the philosophical sense that collectivist action for individual liberty is reminiscent of the old Steve Martin sketch where he’d get the crowd to chant along with his non-conformists’ oath: 

“I promise to be different.”

(“I promise to be different.”)

“I promise to be unique.”

(“I promise to be unique.”)

“I promise not to repeat things other people say.”

(“I promise not to repeat things other people say.”)

Yet on the streets of Washington we have the Martinesque sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans standing shoulder to shoulder for the right to be left alone. Aside from the philosophical paradox, there are practical difficulties to be overcome. These people have jobs. I mean real jobs, not the kind where it doesn’t matter whether you turn up, or in which jumping up and down on the sidewalk all day is factored into the timesheet. These are not community organizers or union officials or college professors. If they decide to spend a weekend agitating outside the Capitol, that’s time away from the hard slog of growing small businesses all across this land. That’s also why they’re not into the routine property damage that street protest traditionally requires, both for credibility and TV coverage. Bandana-clad anti-globalists denouncing a G8 or IMF summit are wont to accomplish this by lobbing bricks through store windows. In such scenarios, any conservatives around are usually the ones ducking below the counter. As telling as any of the signs or speeches at the 9/12 D.C. protest were the photographs from late in the day, when the crowd thinned and the capital’s grass and sidewalks reemerged from under their feet: There was nary a candy-bar wrapper in sight. This must be the tidiest mass movement ever unleashed on the land — just compare it with the post-inaugural mounds of trash last January. If they ever do riot down Main Street, the chances seem pretty good that before dispersing they’ll reglaze your windows and touch up your shingle. 

For their pains and their sheer normality, the “tea party” movement have been doubly traduced. To the ruling Democrat-media complex, the protesters were simultaneously “astroturf” and bumbling amateurs with too diffuse a range of home-made placards: They were fake but the signs were too real. Later, they were deemed “confused” and “angry” and “Nazis” and “racists” and “evilmongers” and “right-wing domestic terrorists” and Brooks Brothers models. Among the institutions of the Right, meanwhile, reaction ranged from hostility to condescension to a coy distance. The last was driven by a gloomy if not unreasonable presumption that these days any conservative enthusiasm is by definition bound to be short-lived. Among the more hostile observers on our side, the general line was that the protests confirmed the view of those who argue that conservatism is intellectually bankrupt and entirely dependent on a base of baying know-nothings who listen to way too much talk radio.

I disagree. The signs display an accurate understanding of the principles of the Obama era: LET THE FAILURES FAIL! Teenager: STOP SPENDING MY FUTURE! Senior: GRANDMA’S NOT SHOVEL-READY. Just as important, the demonstrators understand the essentials more clearly than many of the think-tankers and Sunday pundits and other insiders hung up on the fine print. “Death panel” took off because it clarified the health-care stakes in ways none of the other oppositional lingo quite managed. My NR colleagues were sniffy about it, and, like many health-policy wonks, seemed to think it an extreme characterization of whatever this or that provision in paragraph 7(d)(iii) on page 912 of the bill actually entailed. All irrelevant. Yes, once the governmentalization of health care is fully accomplished, there will be literal “death panels,” like Britain’s NICE (the National Institute of Clinical Excellence), an acronym one would regard as Orwellian had not C. S. Lewis actually got to it first — NICE being the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments in his novel That Hideous Strength. But that’s missing the point: The entire reform package, not page 1,432, is the death panel, in the sense that it will ultimately put your body under the jurisdiction of government bureaucrats. Likewise, focusing on whether or not there is an explicit “public option” is missing the forest for some peripheral sapling: The whole Obamacare megillah itself is the “public option,” since that’s where it leads, irreversibly. It’s more disturbing to me that conservative “thinkers” don’t seem to grasp this, and deride those who do as boorish and unlettered. You won’t win this argument by getting caught in the weeds. The intellectual heft at the tea-party protests consists of the animating principles of the American idea: the Founding Fathers writ large in comic-book lettering — TRADE FREEDOM FOR SECURITY AND YOU WILL HAVE NEITHER! That so many conservative sophisticates regard this as either hopelessly provincial or beyond the bounds of political viability testifies to the real intellectual bankruptcy out there.

Why do the protesters get it? The Obama project is not difficult to understand. It’s been accomplished in many other parts of the Western world: If you expand the dependent class and the government class, you can build a permanent electoral coalition and stick the beleaguered band in the middle with the tab. In early 2008, in response to one of my fin de civilisation jeremiads, a reader wrote to tell me to lighten up: “You need to relax. We’re rich enough to afford to be stupid.” Just over a year later, we’re no longer as rich, but we’re being considerably more stupid. Nevertheless, a lot of people take my correspondent’s view: If you have old money well-managed, you can afford to be stupid — or afford the government’s stupidity on your behalf. If you get $20 million to act in a movie, you can afford the government’s stupidity. If you’re an ex-senator parlaying his Rolodex into “consultancies” with tax-free chauffeur-driven limos, you can afford it. If you’re a tenured professor or a union worker in a nominally private industry whose labor contracts were chiseled in stone two generations ago, you can afford it. If you’re a bestselling novelist like Christopher Buckley or the house conservative of a liberal newspaper like David Brooks, you can afford it. You’ll survive, more or less.

But a lot of the protesters don’t have the same comfortably padded margin for error on the unprecedented Obama scale. What the Democrats are doing means that millions of the hardest-working Americans will have to put their business expansion and their roomier house and their vacation camp and music lessons for the kid on hold. And “on hold” presupposes that one day the retrenchment, the hunkering down, will end. But why would it? In many Continental countries, a smaller home and a smaller car are the norm. It’s not just about the money — DON’T TAX ME, BRO! — but about the web of regulations that ensnare you at every turn: As Mason Weaver told the 9/12 rally, “Ropes and chains, not hope and change.” Cute line. It went entirely unreported in the mainstream media, presumably because he’s another one of those “angry white males,” although he happens to be black. (“I thought you’d like to hear a black man speak without a TelePrompTer,” he told the crowd. Another cute line.) 

What does he mean, “ropes and chains”? The other day I was talking to a stonemason and a roofer who were asked to do a job for a certain large institution in New Hampshire. They were obliged to attend “ladder school,” even though both have been working at the tops of high ladders for over 40 years. The gentleman from OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) cautioned them against mocking his transparent waste of their time: Under the new administration, he explained, his bureaucracy would be adopting a more enforcement-oriented approach to private business. So they rolled their eyes merely metaphorically and consented to give up a working day because the federal government has taken to itself the right to credentialize ladder-climbing from Maine to Hawaii.

At a certain point, why bother? As fast as you climb the ladder, you’ll be taxed and regulated down the chute back to the bottom rung. You’ll be frantically pedaling the treadmill seven days a week so that the statist succubus squatting on your head can sluice the fruits of your labors to Barney Frank and the new “green jobs” czar and whichever less hooker-friendly “community organizer” racket picks up the slack from ACORN, as well as to untold millions of bureaucrats micro-regulating you till your pips squeak while they enjoy vacations and benefits you’ll never get. Who needs it? If you have to work, work for the government: You can’t be fired and you can retire in your early 50s. Running your own business is for chumps.

The tea-party movement understand that we’re approaching a point de bascule — that means “tipping point,” but I put it in French in hopes that one or two of the many strains of conservative “reformer” might regard it as a nuanced concept of European provenance and take it up. For the less nuanced, it’s already plain: This is a transformational presidency for which they and their children will pay the price. What do they want? In a word — the word at this year’s protests — liberty. Which isn’t quite the same as democracy: On present trends, in a couple of years 51 percent of Americans will pay no federal income tax but will be able to vote themselves ever more lollipops from the 49 percent who do. It is interesting that Anderson Cooper’s sneering nickname for the protesters — “teabaggers” — caught on so effortlessly not just with the hard Left but with the mainstream media. “Teabagging,” I gather, is the name for an abstruse sexual practice involving the male, ah, scrotum. (Come to think of it, I don’t believe there is a female scrotum, but, if there is, no need to write.) That’s what “liberty” means to an otherwise illiberal Left these days: sexual liberty. You can shag anything that moves in whatever form takes your fancy, and we’re all cool with it. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, as Pierre Trudeau once said. If you want to be a teabagger in the Anderson Cooper sense, go for it. But, if you’re a teabagger in the 9/12-protest sense, if you stand up for non-sexual liberty — for economic liberty, for a restrained and fiscally prudent government, for the freedom to live your life and fulfill your potential free from the micro-despotism of the nanny state — the mainstream media think you’re kooks and misfits, and so do too many conservatives.

I’m a foreigner. In the wake of the economic meltdown last fall, there were protests from Iceland to Bulgaria, with mobs all demanding the same thing of their rulers: Why didn’t you, the government, do more for me? This is the only country in the developed world where hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to tell the state: I could do just fine if only you’d get the hell out of my life — or at least confine yourself to constitutional responsibilities. I find that heartening and hopeful. After all, if you’re an immigrant, there’s nothing new about Obama: Been there, done that. He’s the land where you grew up, with its union bullies and confiscatory marginal tax rates and government automobiles and general air of sclerosis, all reemerging Brigadoon-like from the mists entirely unspoilt by progress. It’s like landing at Ellis Island in 1893, coming down the gangplank, and finding everyone excited about this pilot program they’ve introduced called “serfdom.”

Does this hitherto unprecedented street conservatism have legs? Maybe. But it certainly has a crude logic. In poll after poll, more people identify as “conservative” than as “Republican.” Conversely, more people identify as “Democrat” than as “liberal.” So, if you’re a liberal, the Democratic party is a way of bigging up your voice. And,  given that your solution to almost any issue is more government, the Democratic party is the institutional conduit to your preferred destination.

For conservatives, it’s all a bit more complicated. There’s been a lot of talk in recent months about conservatives’ learning the Alinsky Rules and sticking it to the Left with them. Good luck. May even work one day. But that’s not what’s going on right now. The tea parties are a pack, not a herd. They’re not led by “community organizers” but by people from communities that don’t want to be organized — not in the way the Left wants them to be.

But when “liberalism” means prostration before a profligate, inept, but omnipresent state, there are worse labels for an opposition to latch on to than “liberty.” “Small government” can often sound like a shriveled and stunted concept, but reframe it from the opposite end as “big liberty” and it’s as inspirational as anything the other side’s got. Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny has now sold a million copies. Reclaiming this word is a huge service to the Right. He and his readers seem to understand what’s at stake. 

By contrast, it’s not clear that the GOP does. Laura Ingraham made a good point on Fox News the other night — that conservatives are doing better than they’ve done in ages at a time when the Republican party is leaderless. I like it that way. If Obama is on the defensive over health care, it’s because of the “mob,” not because of John McCain or Orrin Hatch or Lindsey Graham, who no doubt are panting to “reach across the aisle” on this and much else. The GOP congressman who turns up at a tea party and expects a cheer for negotiating this week’s trillion-dollar boondoggle down to a mere $850 billion will find few takers. There is no detectable enthusiasm for the Republican party per se, although individual Republicans (Sarah Palin, Joe Wilson) will be spoken of approvingly to the degree they diverge from the factory-produced cookie-cutter craven RINO-squish reach-across model. Conservatives support the Republican party faute de mieux, but, after recent years, they’re in the mood for something considerably mieux. And, after 2008, they’re not wrong. If the GOP is wise, it will hear that message.


Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.

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