Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tea Parties - Old and New

I got my Voter Registration Card in the mail this week. Now I just have to motivate myself to vote!

Exactly who is - or isn’t - motivated is being touted as a major factor in this year’s mid-term elections. Of course, that should hardly be news. What political scientists used to (and presumably still do) call the intensity factor has always played a significant part in elections and politics in general. Still, the intensity factor – or, as it is being termed these days, the enthusiasm factor (as in the Democrats’ much remarked “enthusiasm gap”) – seems poised to play a decisive role in determining this year’s electoral outcomes.

That the Democrats are suffering an “enthusiasm gap” is an obvious fact. Just why, however, is less than completely clear. It seems to have been lost on many commentators – and, more importantly, on the electorate at large – that the incumbent President and Democratic Congress have accomplished quite a lot (their most memorable accomplishment in my book being the Health Care legislation). In an earlier era, Democratic congressional candidates would be trumpeting this monumental accomplishment. In contrast, it seems almost as if they are embarrassed about having passed this long sought-after reform. They have, in short, been frightened by their opponents – in particular, the so-called “Tea Party.” Having let their opponents define the agenda, they are now running away from their own record. No wonder, they inspire so little enthusiasm!

Their opponents – again, the “Tea Party” people, in particular – seem exceptionally enthusiastic. With the Democrats embarrassed by their greatest accomplishment, it’s hardly surprising that their opponents feel the wind at their back and are poised for a significant victory – a repeat of 1994, perhaps, or even more promising, another 1966!

Meanwhile, much of what passes for political debate this season seems more of the same old silliness that has so often substituted for rational discourse in contemporary politics. When right-wingers refer to the health care reforms as “ObamaCare,” substituting childish name-calling for reasoned argument, they continue a tradition of silliness exemplified by Republicans who can’t bring themselves to call the Democratic Party by its proper name and call it the “Democrat Party” instead – and on the other side by Lefties who just can’t stomach calling Washington’s Airport by its proper name, “Reagan National Airport.”

There is, I suppose, a certain amount of silliness in the rhetoric of the so-called “Tea Party” Movement too. The silly-sounding name, however, is not in itself so silly at all. Its not so subtle attempt to identify a 21st century movement with an 18th century revolt in what were then Britain’s American colonies highlights the fundamental problematic at the origin of the American polity.

Traditionally estimated at around one-third of the colonial population, the 18th century American revolutionaries were never a majority, but (like the “Tea Party” today) they made up for that in intensity and enthusiasm. More to the point, like today’s “Tea Party,” they were motivated, at least initially, by an unwillingness to be taxed for government services. In the 18th century, it was the British Parliament’s expectation that the colonists should pay their proper share of the bill for Britain’s military expenditures, which had defended the colonies’ from the French and the Indians. The French having been decisively defeated in 1763, however, the colonists suddenly felt secure enough to go it alone – and hence avoid paying the bill both for that earlier victory and for the long-term benefits of an ongoing imperial connection.

Like their 18th century antecedents, the “Tea Party” (and other Americans as well) apparently just don’t want to pay taxes. Have they forgotten why we have taxes in the first place? Why we have government in the first place?

A classmate of mine in graduate school once described the United States as a polity that hates politics. In fact, however, for much of the 20th century, it was widely accepted that government had important and beneficial functions to perform for its citizens – functions that were worth paying for. In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, in part because of some conspicuous failures on government’s part, that never-completely-abandoned American suspicion of politics and government re-emerged with a vengeance. As the late Tony Judt observed in 2008 (Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century), it has become increasingly common to see the state “as a source of economic inefficiency and social intrusion best excluded from citizens’ affairs whenever possible” with the result that “this discounting of the state has become the default condition of public discourse in much of the developed world.”

In reality, of course, classical liberalism’s emphasis on individual freedom and corresponding suspicion of the state serves a very valuable purpose. Power does corrupt, as Lord Acton famously reminded us and history repeatedly illustrates (not least the history of the 20th century). Classical liberalism’s emphasis on individual freedom and the actual, lived experience of generations of immigrants who came to America precisely to be free (or at least more free) to live as they pleased have historically helped make this the most dynamic and most free society in the world. I say “helped make” rather than “made,” because in fact it was the felicitous combination of classical liberalism’s suspicion of state power and 19th-20th century reformist liberalism’s commitment to the use of state power on society’s behalf that produced the free and prosperous post-war society in which I grew up. The fact is there is a case to be made both for classical liberalism’s suspicion of the state and for reformist liberalism’s use of state power. The serious debate between the two and the fruitful negotiation between the two are what we need and what we seem to be losing. To quote Tony Judt again: “what is striking is how far we have lost the capacity to conceive of public policy beyond a narrowly construed economism. We have forgotten how to think politically.”

The Tea Party movement, for all its rhetorical silliness, does connect back to that original 18th century American tax revolt, but in a way which further diminishes rather than enriches the real debate we need to be having about what kind of society we want to be. As Karl Marx famously observed in 1852 (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), history does repeat itself –“the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

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