Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Tea Party and Political Science

Hoover Institution senior fellow Peter Berkowitz put up something of a good argument in his October 16th Wall Street Journal column about liberals' fundamental misunderstanding of the Tea Party movement. By liberals, of course, he means a select few liberal pundits whose scribblings he takes as synecdoche for "vast numbers of other highly educated people" who agree with them. There is something to the idea, as he puts it, that
for the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs.
Left-of-center commentators have missed the best way to understand the political heart of the Tea Party movement: the central narrative of re-establishing the nation's "tradition" of "limited government" in the myriad of ways that desire had been expressed since last summer. The trappings of the Revolutionary War era, the language of "isms," the self-righteous and overtly revivalist spirit of its people-power rallies all point to a powerful, if intellectually shallow, attachment to an ideal of American national identity. Much of Political Science, and some parts of my own discipline of political history, are ill-equipped to take ideology seriously and to disentangle its strands. As for liberal pundits generally, I've harped on the Hofstadter fixation enough at this point.

For Berkowitz, the Tea Party carries on the vision of the Constitution as described in the Federalist Papers, an ideology Tea Partiers simply derive from the ether of American life since most of them haven't read the essays themselves. No bother, says Berkowitz, they love the Constitution and that's enough -- even if they haven't read the First Amendment very carefully.

There is something going on here, and it's not that the folky heroes of the Tea Party understand the Constitution better than Woodrow Wilson and generations of PolySci majors at elite institutions (the kind one might lie that one attended in the middle of a senatorial run, perhaps). What Wilson (PhD, Johns Hopkins, Political Science) and other progressives (and liberals since) understood about their political age is that limited government could no longer protect the individual liberties Tea Partiers claim to defend. Corporations, industry interests, and regionally-build party machines (i.e., the states) had broken American politics so thoroughly that concentrated wealth could threaten the liberty of all Americans anywhere. Monopoly, graft, greed could literally ruin the lives of individuals clear across the continent from centers of power. Government, through a more expansive reading of the Constitutional powers granted the legislative and executive branches, had to step in where the people were powerless. This was not statism: it was democracy, a word that saturated the Progressive Era and is almost meaningless in our own.

The brilliance of the modern conservative movement is not a rediscovery of the Constitution as much as a annihilation of the idea that the interests of private individuals and large concentrations of wealth are frequently at odds with one another. Conservative supporters of the Tea Party movement have pulled an even more impressive feat by getting most of the public, liberal pundits included, to forget that this modern conservatism now afoot isn't so modern even. As Sean Wilentz detailed in the New Yorker (an essay I'll get to later), the powerfully anti-government opinions of one Glenn Beck have been around since the late 1950s. Conservative corporate leaders' attempts to bring down the New Deal with an ideology of Constitutionally-mandated "limited government" are decades older, as Kim Phillips-Fein and Nancy Wall have tracked in their excellent books. Contemporary resistance to "the State" or "statism" or whatever ism once chooses to dollop on Obama on a poster has nothing to do with 1787 and everything to do with 1945, when Readers' Digest first published excepts of Road to Serfdom.

Whether or not the Tea Party is racist, or an astroturf movement, or a conspiracy fronted by the Koch brothers (and I suppose I would say yes to all three) is less important than why the bunch of recycled truisms its members have heard since their grade school days still have currency: that free enterprise alone drives prosperity, that the private sector is destroyed by taxes, that state services only make people lazy, and that government has no place in regulating the economy. They probably heard it when their moms and dads (or they) voted for Goldwater, or maybe Reagan. Why has the left allowed such obvious falsehoods and such modern political inventions to stand for timeless national tradition? Maybe Berkowitz is right -- because we've been building too many mathematical models and reading too many polls.

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