Tea Party


Yesterday I attended the 2010 Bradley Institute symposium entitled “Tea Time: Can There be a Populist Conservatism?” The symposium featured former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), Jonah Goldberg and Michael Barone, and was moderated by Bill Kristol. This event came on the heels of a similar roundtable sponsored by AEI entitled “Are Tea Parties the Future?,” featuring, among others, Ross Douthat (video of the event is here; a summary is here).

While participants in the AEI event were largely analytic in their assessment of the Tea Party movement, there were undercurrents of a concern over how helpful the Tea Party movement might be for Republican electoral prospects, concerns that were more fully visible as roiling waves at the Bradley Institute symposium. What was particularly striking about the yesterday’s Bradley Institute event was the effort to harness and even tame the Tea Party movement, in particular to make it safe for the Republican party. With the exception of some opening throat-clearing by Jonah Goldberg – who noted in passing that Populism had not always or even often been consonant with Constitutionalism, or at least his idea of what that was (I would disagree with his claim, and note that the Populists advanced a more Jeffersonian, and anti-Hamiltonian, understanding of the Constitution) – there was a quick chorus of agreement that the contemporary Tea Party movement is a VERY GOOD THING, that its main aims are a restoration of the Constitutional system as was intended by the Framers, especially the restraint and reduction of centralized government power. It was argued by a number of the panelists that the Tea Party movement had come into being in order to restore the Republican party to its true principles and that those principles were utterly consonant with the Constitutional order as established by the Founding Fathers.

What struck me during the proceedings was the utter preposterousness of this claim. What went entirely unmentioned was the fact that populism for much of its history was a Left political movement that aimed above all at the restraint not necessarily of Government, but upon depredations of private industry – especially the financiers and Railroads (replace “Railroads” with “Big Oil,” and you see how far we’ve come). Strikingly, throughout the two-and a half hour discussion, it wasn’t suggested once that Tea Party populism might have a legitimate anti-corporate animus. Even as some of the participants noted that the Tea Party anger became visible first during the TARP bailouts of “too big to fail” banks, every participant interpreted these origins to mean that this anger should be understood solely and exclusively as directed toward and against Big Government (and solely as support for the Republican Party). Several times during the discussion it was claimed that the Tea Partiers sought to roll back the regulatory State so that free enterprise could flourish. Rarely has the spinning been so furious, even in the heart of Washington D.C.

Also amusing were the now knee-jerk efforts by the Right intelligensia to pin all that is bad about America on the Progressive movement, that infestation upon the pristine perfection of the Constitutional order. What went unmentioned in that regard was that at least as many Republicans advanced Progressivism as Democrats. What’s more, Progressives were as prone to praise the Founding Fathers as were members of the panel, and shared a similar set of sympathies, seen in particular in Progressive-era praise concentrated particularly on Alexander Hamilton and his vision of an “American system” (Progressives were also quite often hawks on American imperialism, another interesting family resemblance with members of the panel). As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s far from clear that the Progressives are antithetical to the Constitutional vision of (some) Founders, and that there’s far more continuity between the Founders’ and Progressivism’s vision of a centralized, powerful state. on the one hand, and Anti-federalist and Populist criticism of public and private power, on the other.

It’s clear that these participants hope that the anger of the Tea Partiers will be the vehicle by which Republicans return to power (in Washington, of course), and by which they can continue to denounce “Gummint” even as they remain cozily ensconced with the corporate interests that it’s clear they were seeking to protect. Before my eyes I was witnessing the Washington establishment’s remarkable facility to absorb all potentially radical movements that could potentially take aim at the heart of centralized power, to defang their threat to the Power Brokers by redirecting the energy of that movement toward an object (Big Government) that will not truly be restrained without corresponding restraint upon the centralization of all power – public and private.

What also struck me is how the Left has been entirely inept at harnessing the anger of the Tea Parties against those very corporate powers. While the anger of the Tea Partiers has been directed both at politicians and financiers, in the main that anger has been manifested as a form of enraged and often scatter-shot fury at all politicians of whatever party. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I take it that this is because the Tea Partiers at least implicitly understand that for all of its tremendous shortcomings, the political realm is still at least partially responsive to political pressure, whereas massive corporations have become increasingly shielded from most forms of public pressure. Yet, it’s striking how feeble and ineffective have been efforts by leaders on the Left to harness and direct this anger at those massive institutionalized concentrations of private power. If TARP was the catalyst for the Tea Party anger, then arguably the anger should be directed at least as much toward Wall Street as Washington. But, most notable Tea Party protests to date have been on the National Mall, not in downtown Manhattan.

The reason is not only the relative inaccessibility of the Corporations (Michael Moore’s efforts to enter several Wall Street firms to “get back the people’s money” in Capitalism: A Love Story, while obviously snarky and mostly for dramatic effect, also made the very real point that the people working in these enterprises are largely inaccessible. By contrast, there were many scenes in that film of Moore at least talking with, if not interviewing at length, political figures – especially the wonderful Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio).

Rather – as Kaptur’s piercing critique of the leadership of her own Party suggests – a major additional part of the problem lies in the nature of the contemporary Left itself, which has become as captured by corporate interests as their cheerleaders on the Right. It’s amusing to watch pundits and the commentariat demand anger from President Obama. Obama was elected for being “cool,” not angry; he was admired by the professoriate not for his radicalism, but for his comfort with the meritocratic elite that the universities today foster and serve; he was embraced by the financiers of Connnecticut (and other blue states) not for the threat he posed to their livelihoods, but because they understood that he was one of them. He had signaled as much early in the campaign when, having suggested to Michigan voters that NAFTA should be revisited, he simultaneously and quietly sent an aide to Canada to reassure them that he had meant no such thing (and, apparently, Hillary Clinton offered the same reassurances to Canada. So much for electoral choice). To replace Henry Paulson, Obama chose Tim Geithner, another Wall Street lackey, and made sure that his administration continued to have ample representatives from Goldman Sachs. As has been amply documented, Obama has surrounded himself with members of the corporate and Ivy-league elite.

Thus, when it’s widely demanded that Obama should “get angry” at Wall Street or BP over their misdeeds, there should be no surprise when the anger that he can muster is entirely feigned and badly performed. It’s downright laughable to hear Obama and various spokesman explain that they are angry – often describing in detail the ways that they express their anger – without ever offering a persuasive and genuine expression of populist fury. That’s because it’s doubtful that there is a populist bone in his body, and perhaps not in his entire administration, an administration long comfortable with America’s meritocratic elite, that class occupying positions of power in our major financial, corporate, and educational institutions.

In the absence of a genuine populism, what we are offered instead are efforts directed by so-called conservatives from Washington D.C. to harness the populist anger for electoral ends ensuring their return to power in Washington D.C. What is being forestalled is that this anger be directed at the profane concentration of power today – public and private – and especially the obvious collusion that has come to exist between our Government and Corporate elite. We instead witness efforts to rewrite history, telling us that widespread populism will help to get the Republican party back to its roots (last I recall, William Jennings Bryan ran against William McKinley and Mark Hanna. Those roots have long shown a collusion between the Republican party and big business) and that its angry edge is born exclusively of an anti-government animus.

A genuine populism awaits a genuine populist leader, someone who does not seek to de-claw a more radical critique of the current arrangements, even to show it a path to a better radicalism of more local self-governance – political and economic. The tea party movement – born of righteous indignation about our system of Socialism for the Rich – deserves better than it is getting, though is showing signs of being easily co-opted by the usual DC gang. Let’s hope hotter minds prevail.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar David June 17, 2010 at 10:07 am

I don’t dig on populism (though I used to drink the cool-aid) because I have a historically evidenced pattern available that they end with efforts to further consolidate power in the hands of a trusted figure who even if being noble themselves, bequeathes that power to lesser successors who abuse it mightily. The populism cycle, like the economic boom-bust cycle contains the seeds of destruction in the way it rises.

avatar Mr. Laughlin June 17, 2010 at 11:42 am

It seems as though populism has become the 500 pound gorilla in the room that both the Democrats and the Republicans have learned to placate when needed and, as such, has become a laughable hologram of its former self. Occasionally it will rear its head and begin to roar, but both sides have learned how to calm him with rhetoric, empty promises and glittering generalities, and thus he lulls back into blissfully materialistic slumber.

Kudos to Mr. Patrick Deneen for his insights.

avatar John June 17, 2010 at 12:25 pm
avatar Patrick J. Deneen June 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Over at the U.S. News and World Report website, Scott Galupo says kind words about the arguments of this posting. Of particular interest is his agreement with my evaluation of the continuity between (certain) Founders and Progressivism, but that he chooses to side with the Progressives. This is a debate worth having, and one that would clarify more than obfuscate, in a departure from what the D.C. fog-machine usually aims to do.

David, I’d like to hear more evidence for your claims. My own best understanding is that Populism has consistently lost to the centralizers (whether in direct electoral defeat or by co-option), who have often successfully manipulated Populist anxieties. At the turn of the last century, the defeat of populism was direct, with successive victories over Bryan. In the past century, populism was co-opted by Republicans, put in the service of a Right agenda that ended up more benefiting Wall Street than Main Street (this far I agree with Thomas Frank). This, I think, may be the paradoxical legacy of populism, one more ironic even than you suggest.

I would agree that there is a distinct danger in the untutored political tendencies of Populism. However, I tend to see populism’s periodic rise in terms comparable to how Kurt Vonnegut described artists as the human equivalents of “canaries in the coal mine,” creatures with sufficient sensitivity to keel over when the air gets bad. And, if Vonnegut’s analogy holds, the canaries are keeling over by the truckload right now.

avatar SirCuss June 17, 2010 at 12:50 pm

The neocons have got to hijack the Tea Party, or short of that slime it into outer darkness, as see the Dorothy Rabinowitz smear; it’s a matter of survival for the neocons and for its Israel Lobby arm in particular.

They’re pretty good at survival. But a neocon Tea Party is no party at all, it ain’t gonna fly, and with a little steady effort at the polls the Tea Party will replace the current bought Congress, restore something more closely resembling constitutional government by and for real Americans, and get this Israel Lobby out of our national institutions.

avatar Grammar June 17, 2010 at 12:52 pm

The fact that the Tea Party is so easily co-opted by politicians in Washington is merely an indicator of what has been true of the Party all along. It is defined by an inherent lack of vision. All the angst and anger that it generates does not contribute to a unified purpose, a fact which is demonstrated by the diverse and disparate causes that it incorporates. Almost anybody that is angry at government for almost any reason fits in. Given this reality, it stands to reason that powerful people who do have a unified vision, however nefarious, should harness this populist fervor and use it as means to accomplish their political goals.

avatar Robert June 17, 2010 at 1:06 pm

David,

I find the cult surrounding Ron and Rand Paul troubling because of the issue you mention in your post.

If there is one iota of difference between your average Paulite, Obamite, or Bushite, I can’t see it. Talk to a Paul supporter and you are immdediately told that as soon as the good docs are in charge they are going to fix everything. Call me crazy, but I’ve heard that one before.

How exactly all of this change is supposed to happen in a democratic system wherein significant parts of the population are going to be openly hostile to said change is beyond my comprehension. Well actually that’s not true, I know how it would happen. A government under the good doctors would rapidly become as authoritarian as the ones we’ve had in recent years.

avatar David June 17, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Patrick,

We might be agreeing more than we realize.

I claim that the rise of populism is its own demise (and I brought up the Austrian school’s theory about the boom-bust cycle in macroeconomics as a similar issue). Populism requires anxiety and mass social behavior patterns to manifest successfully, those same anxieties and social behaviors are what allow tyrants to hijack populism and turn it into centralized power.

Classic early American example is Andrew Jackson, a “populist” who wielded his executive power unconstitutionally. I take this all rather personally, because my former political world view was as Jacksonian as you can get. I was appalled that it took me to my mid-30s to realize the fundamental error of populism which empowers tyrants. And had to unlearn my previous thinking and learn to love oligarchies.

I have no interest in populism, revolutions, or “throw the bums out” simplicities anymore. I think coming to expect factionalism and respect its role in politics was part of my coming to heed the value of localism on its own terms. I have no desire for populist responses to centralized power and don’t have the least temptation to hitch my like interests to the Tea Party or any other such movement.

I’ll stick to balancing other power structures (cities, agencies, states, social institutions, churches, corporations) against the central authority, this seems to guard in prudence against the dangers presented by other “allies”.

I like my politics messy, self-interested and competitive. Because if someone isn’t playing real-politik then they are some sort of wack-job “true believer” with whatever utopian scheme of the day who needs to be kept as far away from the levers of power as possible (if they can’t be controlled).

avatar David June 17, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Robert, there is definitely cult-patterns in politics. Pretty scary stuff, especially for anyone who is genuinely attempting to be a “good citizen” because the temptation will always be there to hitch to someone or something to set things aright. But it cannot be done.

I will say one thing, “God bless those who inherently lack vision.”

This is one of the draws of localism (that I’d better not over-idolize either), that to a great extent localism disavows best and embraces good. And I don’t mean here that it offers mediocrity, rather it has the potential to disarm extremists who want to remake the world according to their own image, because “best” will always be “best” from the values (or lack thereof) that it was evaluated by. It is better to be good and pursue that good as you are able, this is the struggle that builds character.

There is no one greatest Saint of the Church (though perhaps we can speak of the Theotokos with some exception) rather Saints have been soldiers, pacifists, kings and paupers, lunatics and sober scholars.

There is no best way to be a Saint. Neither is there a best way to run a farm, or build main-street, or even pursue justice from the magistrate’s bench. You need moderation, consideration, and judgment for the good. And put out of your head all the notions of perfection or its demon-spawn best-practices.

We cannot get the crooks. We will not fix-the-system. We can only live a sober and calm way of live amid the insanity of the modern project, managing our personal resources as we can to plant and cultivate our own garden of virtue.

This is all incomprehensible to the anxiety that primarily fuels populism. It is, in fact, diametrically opposed to it.

avatar John Médaille June 17, 2010 at 1:54 pm

A couple of points which may (or may not) be relevant. The dominant fact of American politics is the extra-constitutional dominance of the two party system. For all intents and purposes, access to the political process is controlled by exactly two parties. But the parties themselves (and their candidates) are dependent upon the funding sources, and since politics is an extremely expensive game, the range of opinion can be no wider than the range of funding sources. Since the amounts are so large, this will be a narrow range of opinion, because the funding sources are narrow.

This is the problem populism has always faced. In times when power and wealth was less concentrated, populism could have some limited success, but no real staying power, since in the material world, “to be is to be funded.” But as politics gets more expensive, and wealth gets more concentrated, then the entry costs get higher and the possibilities of populism get narrower. No matter what the tea partiers do or do not believe (and I am not convinced that it represents any particularly coherent body of thought) they can only express it in the language of one or the other of the parties. They believe they can work the Republican party to their will, except that they have no will, and no money either, except as that money is provided by lobbyists hoping to direct that anger to some particular corporate agenda. Their anger will always be harnessed to some corporate agenda. (The same applies to any sufficiently large left-wing group, as well.)

The tea party will be used and cast aside, in much the same manner the “right to life” movement was. The political rhetoric will be strong, but the actions will be weak–from the tea partiers’ perspective–because the politicians will continue to be responsive to the corporations that provide their funding, rather then to voters who merely provide their votes. The voters can be fooled with rhetoric, but the lobbyists want specific actions, and hence will always have an advantage in political coherence, quite apart from their advantage in ready cash, the mother’s milk of politics.

I think any analysis of any movement that isn’t given in terms of ballot access and funding will fall short of the mark; it will be theoretical rather than practical.

avatar John Médaille June 17, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Marcy Kaptur for President, ’12. Or at least for SecTreas.

avatar Caleb Stegall June 17, 2010 at 2:37 pm

It might be worth revisiting this old bit:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/10/populist-revival/

avatar Mark Perkins June 17, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I pretty much agree with David here. The two options in contemporary American politics seem to be the Progressivism that dominates both parties or anti-establishment populist rage. The bankruptcy of the former I need not argue here. The latter, though, is hardly more promising. As David says, the whole “kick ‘em out” anger has little to offer. It is essentially revolutionary in temperament, no matter how much you dress it up in traditional language. It requires paranoia and rage to succeed (as SirCuss’ Jewish conspiracy theorism above demonstrates), and that rotten tree will hardly result in the kind of local and traditional communities FPR advocates. It seems to either result in the same old, same old–which it has pretty much every time in America–or, outside of America, populist, nationalist, revolutionary dictatorships.

Scott Galupo mentions Jefferson’s role in promoting rather than opposing progressive, commercial politics in America. It’s a fairly fitting example of how national American politics inherently promotes national American policies rather than a truly federal system of regional and local variation and intermediary bodies of authority.

avatar Empedocles June 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Well, when the only choices are throw the bums out (for new bums) vs. let the old bums stay, the former is still preferable.

avatar Corey June 17, 2010 at 3:29 pm

This is really a better primer on the history of populism than it is an analysis of the tea partiers. As other commenters have noted, this “populist” revolt has less to do with William Jennings Bryan and fin de siecle populism than it has to do with rejecting government intervention of almost any kind. Lest we begin attributing our own prejudices about corporatism and big markets to tea partiers, we should remember that the “tea party” moniker was given to the protests by Rick Santelli, CNBC business anchor. At the time, he was ranting on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange about the government’s plans to refinance bad mortgages. Small wonder, then, that Republicans- who you say are mixed up with Wall Street and corporate interests- would think of the tea partiers as natural allies.

The tea partiers ought to illustrate that there’s no per se requirement of an ideology among populists, or of any historically consistent ideological among populists. Their defining characteristic isn’t so much who they’re mad at so much as it is that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. These specific populists are mad at anyone who offers government as a solution, they’re mad at the uses of their tax dollars, and at political incumbents who they perceive as having gone along with this agenda. They are also somewhat unconcerned with social issues, making them a kind of “right populism” more like libertarianism than your historical populists.

This, rather than the reasons you offer, is a better explanation of why Republicans haven’t quite been able to connect with the tea party. As a legitimate populist movement, there is tension between it and both parties. But it should be obvious that there is a natural affinity between tea partiers and the Republican party, even if the establishment hasn’t been able to quite connect with them. Although Tea Party leaders have said they would endorse a Democrat, all of their supported candidates so far have been Republicans.

avatar David June 17, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Empedocles,

That’s the problem. It isn’t. There are other basis on which to make your political choices which are more rational albeit substantially more complicated as well. The devil you don’t know is a delusion of simple orderly response in the daunting face of chaos.

Don’t be daunted into such simplifications for a false sense of cognitive resonance.

I think John did an excellent job of inserting some complex reality of monetary interests into this. There really isn’t any meaningful political process in America without the moneyed interests. There’s no point in trying to find a utopian scheme to alter that fact either. Just live within the rules as they are and get on with life.

Systematizers won’t be shot, they’ll just be brought to tears by the creative forces which undo their genius through applied “enlightened self-interest”.

avatar Glenn D. June 17, 2010 at 4:42 pm

As Professor Dineen and others have been pointing out in the last few weeks, what was really surprising in 2008 was how many people actually believed(or at least pretended to believe) that the President, given his background and connections, embodied “change.” Maybe that was what the “hope” was all about, hoping that his leadership would manifest itself in a way that was not indicated by his upbringing. The anger of the Tea Parties at Monsieur Evremonde is to a degree healthy in our representative republic, but, as here pointed out, both parties will work overtime to co-opt that emotion in time for the fall elections. The words of Mad Jack Randolph keep wringing in my head: “I have found but two parties in all states — the ins and the outs; the ins desirous so to construe the charter of the Government as to give themselves the greatest possible degree of patronage and wealth; and the outs striving so to construe it as to circumscribe –what? Their own power? No, sir; their adversaries’ power. But let the outs get in, and lay hold of the artillery of Government, and you will find their Constitutional scruples and arguments vanish like dew before the morning sun. No, sir; I have no faith in the declarations of parties, and, if we mean to guard the liberties of this State, we must watch the ins, be they who they may…”

avatar Christopher Harrison June 17, 2010 at 8:27 pm

John,

I think that there is an additional element in your analysis of the impact of moneyed interests at play. That is the general loss of community (a trend which localism works against) in the period since the Populist Revolt of the late 19th century.

Bryan and the populists were up against as concentrated set of moneyed interests in McKinley and Hanna as exists today. Just look at the numbers in campaign expenditures for proof. In 1896, McKinley outspent Bryan by a factor of five. The difference, at least as I see it, lay not in the raw amount of money in play but the greater influence of those moneyed interests in shaping public opinion — especially with the absence (or extremely reduced role) of the associations that Tocqueville described as the center of American political life.

Let’s face it — we have been atomized into thinking ourselves free individuals who exist above communal demands or any form of interdependence, which has only made us easier to control by those who have more resources at their command than we do, aided mightily by an all-pervasive mass media designed to serve as agents of control. In the past, people rightly recognized their interdependence upon others — and fought not in the name of a purely individual freedom, but rather against those forces that sought to displace and destroy those communal relationships and organizations (family, church, community, etc.) in the name of the “free market.”

avatar Bruce Smith June 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm

What tragi-comedy to watch the shills from both the Democratic and Republican parties struggling to keep a straight face when they argue for small government but then use every opportunity to make use of government time to twist the law in the interests of their rich sponsors. Take, for example the news that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was registered in the Marshall Islands to avoid onerous regulations. This is a common ploy but where was the US law to void that little game? Or take the attempt by the Republican party to deter negative equity homeowners from using the standard business practice of strategic default by returning their homes to their lenders. Suddenly the party of “Debt Slaves” is seen exactly for what it is:-

http://www.truth-out.org/free-market-fundamentalism-is-invention-progressives60418

avatar Bruce Smith June 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Time in America to update the old anarchist slogan about “Whoever you vote for the government got in” to “Whoever you vote for the Rich got in.”

avatar Bruce Smith June 17, 2010 at 9:08 pm

The other good one for today is remember the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that corporations were persons? Well when the shit hits the fan suddenly there are no persons to be found at the head of corporations. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward was grilled today by a committee at the House of Representatives on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster. Hayward did so well evading any responsibility or knowledge of the causes that he was almost declared a non-person who for all intents and purposes wouldn’t appear to actually work at BP:-

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/17/tony-hayward-testimony-video_n_616690.html

avatar John Gorentz June 17, 2010 at 11:41 pm

whereas massive corporations have become increasingly shielded from most forms of public pressure

I stopped reading at this point. Until I got this far, I thought it was a serious article with some good points. I hadn’t realized the author had been pulling my leg.

avatar Martha June 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

I’m confused why there’s confusion why the Left hasn’t been able to harness tea-partiers. While I don’t think it’s as simple as class, the populist left has generally sought to ‘empower’ those who are, or consider themselves, poor. The Tea Party is comprised of those who are, or consider themselves, middle class. While I think it’s easy to read too much into that, I think it explains why the Tea Party doesn’t want to be anti-corporate. They are happily part of the consumerist culture and wish for more things, more of the same. Whereas, those on the Left don’t want to be anti-’gummit’ because it has been a major vehicle for improving the lives of the poor.

avatar Rob G June 18, 2010 at 10:02 am

There are legitimate areas of concern/interest were populism, loosely understood, and traditional conservatism overlap and concur. It is on these issues, the largely “middle class” ones, which conservatives should concentrate their attention. The Tea Party movement is correct in addressing the issue of the size of government, but that’s not the only issue.

Sam Francis is instructive here; see his essay ‘Beautiful Losers’ in the book of the same title.

avatar John Gorentz June 18, 2010 at 11:50 am

Years ago, when my dearly beloved grandfather was still alive, I asked him who he first voted for in a presidential election. When he said William Jennings Bryan, I about fell off my chair. He had voted for a populist? Well, he had been younger then, too, but later he was also down on FDR, the New Deal, and everything it stood for. He refused to accept Social Security until the welfare pimps forced it on him (and he could ill afford to do without it). He’d rail against communists inside and outside the country, and about businessmen who cared only about their pocketbooks, as he put it. After WWII he operated a general store on the North Dakota prairie until the area became too depopulated to support one. He had a lot of Jeffersonian agrarian idealism in him, though he never used that term. I think his father may have been an activist in some of those causes back around the turn of the 20th century — farmers vs railroads, etc. He never had a good thing to say about liberals (and even in his old age, there still were liberals in this country). I can’t imagine he’d have anything good to say about the people who misleadingly call themselves progressive now, though he probably had some affinity with the real thing, back in their day.

I think he would have been pleased with many of the varieties of tea partiers.

avatar rex June 18, 2010 at 12:37 pm

The limitation of populism is inherent in its very make-up. Ordinary citizens taking up pitchforks to drive off demons and save the village; once the crisis is over these citizens return to their lives and the same demons morph into more subtle threats. Populists are not suited to lead in the long term either by vocation or avocation. They just want to live their lives and trust their leaders to act for the common good. The Vonnegut analogy is apt – Kilgore Trout for President.

avatar Mark Perkins June 18, 2010 at 12:53 pm

“While I don’t think it’s as simple as class, the populist left has generally sought to ‘empower’ those who are, or consider themselves, poor. The Tea Party is comprised of those who are, or consider themselves, middle class.”

Martha makes a good point. I’m the last person to reduce any issue to a “socio-economic” factors, but they certainly do play a role. As the middle class has expanded and expanded and “regular folk” have become more middle than lower class, the populist movement has taken on more of a middle class than lower class feel. Though I’d also say the expansion of the middle class has transformed the middle class into something quite different from the old bourgeois idea.

avatar Rob G June 18, 2010 at 2:19 pm

“As the middle class has expanded and expanded and “regular folk” have become more middle than lower class, the populist movement has taken on more of a middle class than lower class feel. Though I’d also say the expansion of the middle class has transformed the middle class into something quite different from the old bourgeois idea.”

If I’m reading him right, this is one of Francis’s points. The middle class feels itself being hosed by the upper class/elites in the government, who make decisions designed to keep the lower classes on the dole, thus maintaining their electoral base. On the Right so-called, decisions are made that benefit Wall St. rather than Main St. The middle class is frustrated by this whole process but doesn’t see itself as having the power/clout to do anything about it. A conservative appeal to the middle class, then, could have positive cultural and political results. Of course this appeal would have to be A) truly conservative and B) done in good faith, neither of which I would trust the GOP to accomplish.

avatar Martha June 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

From Beautiful Losers (Francis):

“The more salient concerns of postbourgeois Middle Americans that a new Right can express are those of crime, educational collapse, the erosion of their economic status, and the calculated subversion of their social, cultural, and national identity by forces that serve the interests of the elite above them and the underclass below them, but at the expense of the middle class.”

This is almost exactly the messaging that the tea party is using… and it emphasizes fear (crime, collapse) and greed (erosion of their economic status). What is the Tea Party articulation of the ‘positive cultural and political results’? And can those results include opposition to big businesses when it emphasizes economic status (too often measured by chinese manufactured goods)?

avatar Rob G June 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Frankly, I don’t pay much attention to the Tea Party movement, and I’d say that if it is using fearmongering and an appeal to greed as tactics then the hell with it.

But emphasis on crime and educational collapse does not necessarily entail fearmongering, just as an emphasis on erosion of economic status is not necessarily a promotion of greed.

avatar D.W. Sabin June 18, 2010 at 5:01 pm

The Sheep are so shell-shocked by serial cluster-boinks that one can expect a principle use of the Tea Party will be as lightening rod for the various wings of the Philodoxic Establishment to scare the sheepish into hewing to the refuge of last resort: Happy Faced Commercial Ochlocracy

Sore Winners have a tendency to enjoy dystopia a tad too much and as a result, the Tea Party, a veritable font of alarms about everything they feel they have lost control of…because make no mistake, the Tea Party is not so much about excessive government control as it is a sense of lost control wished to be re-claimed by the Tea Partier themselves…..well, the Tea Party is a professional level Doom and Gloomer and this fertilizes fear and loathing and herds the public into the sheep fold.

The only interesting thing about modernity is the way its participants believe themselves to be some kind of perpetual summit of achievement. In no need of God, the smiling technocrat kills Socrates too, leaving the field virtually free of any profitable use of the human brain beyond that entailed in a livestock form of citizenry.

Welcome to the Funny Pages Writ Large. Underneath, a sordid rot accumulates and occasionally erupts into the light, smearing us like this swell oil “leak”. Gut shot for two months and counting and we moan about whether someone is acting emotional enough. The people of this country have utterly forgotten what stewardship is. They wait to be herded…the farmer has gone feral.

avatar David June 18, 2010 at 5:11 pm

Tea Party as “demographic formerly flattered”; interesting take. They didn’t have any real power before, but they did have the appearance of power furnished for them by them that truly wielded it. Now the mask has grown so thin and they fear that which has been true all along, they were never in control. The pure folly is that they still believe the old lie well enough to demand its hollow shell be returned to sit at the head of the table.

avatar JD Salyer June 18, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Great article. I would disagree with this, however:

“What also struck me is how the Left has been entirely inept at harnessing the anger of the Tea Parties against those very corporate powers.”

It’s not ineptitude. The Left defines itself in terms of stamping out the ethnic/religious/cultural demographic that comprises the Tea Party, and is too committed to anti-Christian, anti-Western, & anti-WASP principles to make anything approaching a common cause with such people.

The Left is no more interested in Tea Party hostility toward corporate powers than it was in the Pope’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

avatar Jordan Smith June 18, 2010 at 10:11 pm

This canary thinks Vonnegut’s analogy definitely holds. Cough, cough.

avatar Rob G June 19, 2010 at 10:53 am

“The Left defines itself in terms of stamping out the ethnic/religious/cultural demographic that comprises the Tea Party, and is too committed to anti-Christian, anti-Western, & anti-WASP principles to make anything approaching a common cause with such people.”

A – freakin’ – men, with one caveat: there are some Leftists I’ve run across who are a sort of agrarian anarchist. They like Wendell Berry, they are suspicious of both big government and big business, etc., but they lean left socially — one sometimes finds them in the home schooling movement, or amongst the Ron Paul supporters. These folks seem to have some sympathy for the Tea Party movement; but they are not part of ‘the Left’ that Mr. Salyer refers to, and in any case are probably not numerous enough to have a real impact.

avatar Art Deco June 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Quite a number of people, I see, are very adept at discerning the concerns and motivations of amorphous masses of people they appear neither to respect nor to have examined. The blowhards are out in force.

It does not seem to have occurred to Dr. Dineen that the objects of protest have changed because the political economy has a different set of contours than was the case in 1900. Consider the following statistics on the distribution of employees by size of enterprise:

http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2010/tables/10s0742.pdf

You will notice that about 85% of the private sector workforce (public employees and the self-employed not tallied here) toil for establishments that employ fewer that 750 workers. (I have worked for a company that size. It has one site, the deputy personnel director addressed me on sight by my first name on the infrequent occasions when I stepped into their offices, and if I did not know someone working there, a co-worker I did know likely did). Consider, now, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency which operates the Voice of America and a half-dozen other broadcasting services. This is among the smallest of federal agencies and has not been the subject of any notable controversy in nearly 60 years. It employs about 750 people. What is baseline for a federal agency puts you at the 85th percentile of the private sector.

Now, consider the employment level in industrial sectors with strong tendencies toward an oligopolistic market structure. A generation ago, about 2.5% of the private-sector workforce was employed in the auto industry. To that you can add steel and smelting, oil, rubber, &c. The share of the workforce earning their living in these sorts of enterprises was modest and in our own time is more modest still. The largest employer at that time, American Telephone & Telegraph, employed about 2.5% of the private sector workforce and operated as a regulated monopoly. The largest now is Wal-Mart, which, with 1.1 million employees, comprehends less that 1% of the private-sector workforce. Did you consider the possibility that ‘corporate power’ is typically too dispersed to be all that problematic in extra-local contexts?

One exception is the financial sector, which has been problematically influential of late. The thing is, the entanglement of the financial sector with the state is unsurprising. Knowledgeable people (e.g. Luigi Zingales and Charles Calomiris) have offered cogent public complaints about the manner in which the banking and financial crisis is being resolved. However, you cannot just say sooo long to troubled banks en bloc. It has been tried before, in 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1933. Such a policy has consequences.

What you have now, and you did not have 110 years ago are…

1. Public employee unions, and the attendant cossetting of public sector workers at everyone’s expense;

2. A ratio of public expenditure to domestic product of 0.4 (0.1 being the norm for occidental countries ‘ere 1914) with what that implies for the allocation of resources by state employees and politicians (acting in concert with lobbies).

3. A bloated social services industry.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that inchoate public discontent finds the state rather than business corporations its primary object.

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