I have my fair share of doubts about the tea party movement. Ideally, I’d like it to be a consistently pro-liberty movement, suffused by tolerance, devoid of craziness and respectful of intellectual arguments. Unfortunately, it’s not. As with all grassroots movements, the energy for the movement bubbles up from the base, and brings with it not just a gratifyingly crowd-pleasing push for personal freedom, but also conspiracy theories, the occasional hater and a grab-bag of populist bugaboos — specifically immigration, among Arizona tea partiers. Frankly, that’s the way real political movements that aren’t custom-designed for my convenience work.
But I have to admit, among the concerns that have led to my hesitation to fully embrace the tea party movement, it never occurred to me that partially replacing the religion-fueled nuttiness of conservatism with an impure strain of individualistic, small-government libertarianism would be its greatest liability.
At least, that’s the argument of E.J. Dionne, a once perceptive political journalist who seems to have been replaced by a computer program designed to simulate all the worst stereotypes about the out-of-touch Eastern media elite.
In a recent syndicated column, Dionne claims that the tea party movement’s rise constitutes “a revolution on the American right in which older, more secular forms of politics displace religious activism.” This is good for Obama and company because:
The rise of the tea-party movement is a throwback to an old form of libertarianism that sees most of the domestic policies that government has undertaken since the New Deal as unconstitutional. It typically perceives the most dangerous threats to freedom as the design of well-educated elitists out of touch with “American values.”
In its extreme antipathy to the power of the federal government, this movement may prove to be threatening to the Republicans in what should otherwise be a good year for the party.
As evidence that the return of concerns about secular politics to the conservative movement is damaging to the political right, Dionne points out that “The language of the new anti-statists, like the language of the 1950s’ right, regularly harks back to the U.S. Constitution and the Founders in calling attention to perceived threats to liberty” and “As the scrutiny of the movement has increased, its critics (most recently Chris Matthews in an MSNBC documentary and Jason Zengerle in the New Republic) have noticed how much of this is very old American stuff.”
Nowhere to be found in the piece is any recognition of what may have sparked such a revival in interest — however inconsistent — in individual liberty and limited government. Dionne makes no reference to the massive increases in government spending in the past decade, or the enormously extended role the federal government has acquired in the economy, due to TARP and the resulting leverage over the finance industry, the nationalization of two automobile companies and the massive health care bill. And there’s no discussion of the growth in executive power, the far-reaching surveillance state, or the authority gained by government officials from the seemingly permanent state of emergency (although, granted, these are lesser concerns for many tea partiers). Nor any mention that all of this has coincided with a massive economic downturn, which many people — including well-educated people — consider to be closely linked to those policies.
Somehow, says Dionne, conservatives just dropped the Jesus talk and started sounding like the Founders again. “What’s remarkable is the extent to which the tea-party movement has displaced the religious right as the dominant voice of conservative militancy.”
And this is bad for conservatives.
The key to the Washington Post scribe‘s assertions (and, amazingly in a nationally syndicated column, that’s all they are) are found in his last two sentences:
Thus has Obama brought back to life a venerable if disturbing style of conservative thinking. In the short run, the new movement’s energy threatens him. In the long run, its extremism may be his salvation.
That’s right. Dionne finds the tea party’s views disturbing and extreme, so of course they spell doom for conservatism.
Holy shit. How suffocatingly insular must the world a writer lives in be for him to simply conclude that an ideology that makes him and his friends uncomfortable as they chat over dinner and cocktails must necessarily be a dead-end?
It’s one thing to pen a column saying that you disagree with the general thrust of a grassroots political movement. For my part, I like the pro-liberty activism and anti-government rhetoric and dislike the nativism, and anti-intellectualism of the tea party movement. But whether Dionne and I love or hate the tea party movement’s ideas, they’re clearly very popular and likely to play a major role in politics for some time to come.
Maybe it’s time to feed the ability to remove his head from his ass into Dionne’s software.