Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Libertarian Mob? Is That What They Are?

There's an article in the current New York Review of Books, The Tea Party Jacobins by Mark Lilla, that offers a very different explanation from my own for what drives the "Tea Party movement" (viz., that it's driven by covert but powerful racism):
Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense.

Historically, populist movements use the rhetoric of class solidarity to seize political power so that “the people” can exercise it for their common benefit. American populist rhetoric does something altogether different today. It fires up emotions by appealing to individual opinion, individual autonomy, and individual choice, all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power. It gives voice to those who feel they are being bullied, but this voice has only one, Garbo-like thing to say: I want to be left alone.

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.
He admits in a footnote that Tea Baggers are not typical middle-Americans but are "in fact...overwhelmingly white, older, educated, and with higher-than avergae incomes," which rather belies his assumption that the Tea Baggers speak for very many people other than themselves.

Further, Lilla sees distrust in government institutions as something quite different than I do (i.e., as the handmaiden of capitalism & its most exclusive elite) and not even necessarily peculiar to the US:
Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively. This is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame. Representative democracy is a tricky system; it must first give citizens voice as individuals, and then echo their collective voice back to them in policies they approve of. That is getting harder today because the mediating ideas and institutions we have traditionally relied on to make this work are collapsing.
Given Sarah Palin's proclamation that "We are all Arizonans," I'm puzzled that Lilla claims that "The new American populism is not, by and large, directed against immigrants."

I do, however, think he's right on the nose about the media's role in fostering the "Tea Party movement":
The right-wing demagogues at Fox do what demagogues have always done: they scare the living daylights out of people by identifying a hidden enemy, then flatter them until they believe they have only one champion—the demagogue himself. But unlike demagogues past, who appealed over the heads of individuals to the collective interests of a class, Fox and its wildly popular allies on talk radio and conservative websites have at their disposal technology that is perfectly adapted to a nation of cocksure individualists who want to be addressed and heard directly, without mediation, and without having to leave the comforts of home.

The media counterestablishment of the right gives them that. It offers an ersatz system of direct representation in which an increasingly segmented audience absorbs what it wants from its trusted sources, embellishes it in their own voices on blogs and websites and chatrooms, then hears their views echoed back as “news.” While this system doesn’t threaten our system of representative democracy, it certainly makes it harder for it to function well and regain the public’s trust.

The conservative media did not create the Tea Party movement and do not direct it; nobody does. But the movement’s rapid growth and popularity are unthinkable without the demagogues’ new ability to tell isolated individuals worried about their futures what they want to hear and put them in direct contact with one another, bypassing the parties and other mediating institutions our democracy depends on. When the new Jacobins turn on their televisions they do not tune in to the PBS News Hour or C-Span to hear economists and congressmen debate the effectiveness of financial regulations or health care reform. They look for shows that laud their common sense, then recite to them the libertarian credo that Fox emblazons on its home page nearly every day: YOU DECIDE.
I also think he's fabulously spot-on with this:
Today’s conservatives prefer the company of anti-intellectuals who know how to exploit nonintellectuals, as Sarah Palin does so masterfully.16 The dumbing-down they have long lamented in our schools they are now bringing to our politics, and they will drag everyone and everything along with them. As David Frum, one of the remaining lucid conservatives, has written to his wayward comrades, “When you argue stupid, you campaign stupid. When you campaign stupid, you win stupid. And when you win stupid, you govern stupid.” (Unsurprisingly, Frum was recently eased out of his position at the American Enterprise Institute after expressing criticism of Republican tactics in the health care debate.)

ETA: The distrust of "educated elites" (politicians, bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, even school-teachers) has for as long as I've known it been a standard feature of working class ethos in the US. The attitude was a fixture of my childhood. (NO ONE with a college education could be trusted-- which made things a bit tricky when I not only acquired one, but took a future professor as my life partner.) So are we to assume that this attitude has percolated up, into the mainstream, educated classes?


Anonymous said...

My own prejudices against mill people came roaring to the surface when my college educated kin met my uncle's wife's people over his sick bed.

We were dismissive of them, their emotionalism, their touchiness, their greediness, their opportunism. Intellectually, I know there's 20% unemployment in Martinsville and has been for over a year, and that my uncle's farm and money is what this fuss is all about. "No shame in being a redneck," my brother said, "just in being an uneducated redneck."

The solutions college educated people propose to manual labor working class people are either to stop being manual labor working class (get a college education, work with your mind, not your hands) or look for collective solutions.

Too, often, the people proposing collective solutions depersonalize the individuals in the manual labor non-college educated working class, patronize them outrageously (one of the Weather women who'd been in law school claimed to be a secretary, her common touch -- and all those Weather kids were from money with seriously elite educations).

My conservative sister (college educated and with a masters in social work) in California would say that you're proof that the system rewards intelligence and foresight and breaking with ties to less culturally advanced families of origin.

Debbie N. said...

The "racism" explanation and the "distrustful of government" explanation don't seem contradictory to me, just orthogonal, and not at all difficult to put next to one another.

After all, the gummint has spent a bunch of decades creating laws and expectations that counteract (at least some) racism in the system.

Most interesting to me is the statement that this distrust of government is worldwide; I'd like to see some data. (I guess the UK election could be read that way.)

New myths. We are so overdue for new myths. I just want them to be myths I can stomach.

Athena Andreadis said...

As an immigrant who is both a scientist and an intellectual, this is my take on the subject: America, Then and Now

Nancy Jane Moore said...

My Aikido teacher once characterized the Aikido styles of students from different countries: The French work to make their techniques beautiful, the Germans are mechanical, the Japanese do everything together, and the Americans are cowboys. I fear there's a lot of truth there; if you give people a myth about themselves, they will lean over backwards to live up to it.

In the US, we have nurtured the myth of individualism, particularly in the West, where we have the image of the lone hero riding into the sunset. The irony of it is that it was cooperation, not individualism, that settled the West. You don't live on the Great Plains or West Texas without the help of your neighbors. The environment is too dangerous.

But somehow we never developed a myth of cooperation, which is too bad. It would serve us well today.

Like Debbie, I don't see a disconnect between Lilla's ideas and the racism argument; I think both are features of the Tea Party movement. And while I'm not sure what he means by his point that the movement is not directed against immigrants, but if he means that anti-immigrant sentiment is not a motivating force, I tend to agree. I think the hostility to immigrants is an outgrowth of the movement, not a cause of it.

But I do find myself concerned about the huge divide between the relatively liberal educated professional and academic people I know, and working people in general. I don't think the well-off liberals are guiltless in this break; I suspect they are not as aware as they should be of the struggles of those who try to live in a world in which fewer and fewer jobs are available to those without degrees (even when the degrees aren't necessary to the jobs). Still, I despair at those who oppose programs that would personally benefit them -- opposition to the health care reform bill by people who do not currently have insurance just floors me.

Athena, I found your article put in clear words a lot of what I've been thinking. And I find it amusing that you, the relatively recent immigrant, and I, with a family that mostly goes back to before the American Revolution, react in much the same way to the crises in this country.

BTW, Michael Ventura is doing a series of columns on oligarchy in the Austin Chronicle. I recommend all of them, but this one, which discusses the different classes, fits into this discussion well (and I cannot read it without flashing onto the society in Timmi's Marq'ssan Cycle). Here's the most recent, which contrasts the class mobility brought about by the GI Bill with the undoing of public responsibility of California's Proposition 13.

(Sorry to go on at length. I was really on my way to bed, but this is such a fascinating discussion.)

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Athena. Reading your essay, I couldn't help remembering how bitterly I raged through those first twelve years of Reagan & Bush-- it was all too easy to see where it was all taking us-- & also to see people changing before one's very eyes.

& Nancy, Ventura's series is brlliant-- thanks for the links. I especially appreciate this: "A tier not one's own becomes "other" and, like every "other," easily stigmatized and dehumanized." It describes the pervasive contempt & unwillingness to see the world as complicated, something we see in high-profile operation daily in the public sphere.

After making my post the other night, while lying awake with insomnia, I recalled a variety of instances in my childhood in which my parents or other adults in our extended family judged as stupid or malicious the various individuals they came into contact with who had a college education-- "stupid" because they had clearly failed to understand what every "normal" person should simply get, "malicious" because they had brought some sort of harm to a family member & must therefore be malicious. The exceptions were always described as "a nice man [or woman], down-to-earth and level-headed," which is the highest compliment my mother could pay anyone. Although I've managed to eradicate a lot of the attitudes & habits I was raised with, I still do sometimes have to consciously remind myself that personal, directed malice is actually rarely responsible for life's mishaps.