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.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.
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.
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.I also think he's fabulously spot-on with this:
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.
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?