Monday, June 14, 2010

A Party with Attitude

Check out a rambling piece by Lee Harris at Policy Review titled, "The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals." I say rambling because in a few short pages Harris ranges from "Polite Company Conservative" intellectuals like David Brooks and David Frum to George Orwell and the Italian communist thinker Antonio Gramsci to the "iron law of oligarchy". Whew! But relax, it's not as imposing as it sounds. (Nor as rigorous as it probably should be.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that the Tea Party movement is defined more by attitude than ideology and that attitude is best captured by the slogan from the Revolutionary War period, a slogan many Tea Partiers have adopted as their own, "Don't Tread On Me!" A more contemporary way to say the same thing might be, "Leave me alone!"

According to Harris, the fact that the movement is more attitude than ideology is important because as attitude it becomes largely immune to counter-argument. "I'm mad as hell, I said. Do you mean to tell me I'm not mad as hell?" But it is also immune to counter-argument for another reason, and this is the real meat of Harris's piece.

Because the Tea Party movement is mostly made up of people who were not previously politically active, nor particularly attentive even, they are virtually impervious to elite opinion, liberal or conservative. They don't know who people like Brooks and Frum are, nor do they read the New York Times or watch network news. As a result, they can't be humiliated when they're dismissed by them as bigoted, shrill, or even violent. In fact, just the opposite happens. The more the organs of elite opinion scorn them, the more justified they feel in their contempt for them in reverse.

Both of these aspects seem to mean the Tea Party movement is with us to stay, at least for a time.

I think Harris overstates the case that the Tea Party movement is short an informing ideology. A call for, a demand for a return to constitutionally limited government sounds like a plan to me. But no matter, his conclusion is sound nonetheless.
The only truly effective check on elite rule is the fear that the people will become fed up with it. When the people decide to try to rule themselves, their first step toward self-government will be to toss out the old elite. True, the people may simply end up by bringing in a new elite, but this is little consolation to the elite that has been replaced. Hence, any ruling elite that wishes to maintain its hold on power will learn to exercise its power within prudent limits, not overreaching and creating dangerous resentment and backlash among the people. This formidable check on elite power does not arise from flimsy constitutional safeguards, which can always be circumvented, but from the suspicious, even paranoid attitude of defiance displayed by ordinary citizens, which is much harder to get around.

The lesson of history is stark and simple. People who are easy to govern lose their freedom. People who are difficult to govern retain theirs. What makes the difference is not an ideology, but an attitude. Those people who embody the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude have kept their liberties simply because they are prepared to stand up against those who threaten to tread on them. To the pragmatist, it makes little difference what ideas free people use to justify and rationalize their rebellious attitude. The most important thing is simply to preserve this attitude among a sufficiently large number of people to make it a genuine deterrent against the power hungry. If the Tea Party can succeed in this all-important mission, then the pragmatist can forgive the movement for a host of silly ideas and absurd policy suggestions, because he knows what is really at stake. Once the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude has vanished from a people, it never returns. It is lost and gone forever — along with the liberty and freedom for which, ultimately, it is the only effective defense.
I wrote some time back about the spirit and the letter of the law, of the Constitution. No matter how dead the letter, if the spirit is alive, we'll be fine. But God help us when the spirit, the attitude, dies as well.

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