05 May 2010

The "new populism": The "antipolitical Jacobinism" of the "libertarian mob."

The latest attempt to account for the tea-party movement comes from Mark Lilla, a scholar in the field of political philosophy whose The Reckless Mind collects case studies of intellectuals who, in his view, corrupted themselves by becoming cheerleaders for revolutionary terror and totalitarian regimes. Writing on "The Tea Party Jacobins" in the May 27 issue of The New York Review of Books (the article isn't yet available online), Lilla offers a hostile analysis designed to be at odds with more conventional tea-readings from both left and right. He insists, for instance, that the TPs don't represent a "conservative counterrevolution," as many Republicans may hope.

[T]he angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic left-right battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Lilla is pretty certain that the TPs are populist, but they're a new kind of populist.

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....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.

According to Lilla, TPs combine two strains of libertarian opinion often seen as at odds with each other: the "anarchic" lifestyle libertarianism rooted in the 1960s and the "selfish" economic libertarianism that became widespread during the 1980s. "Though there's been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it's clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind," he writes, "And so is the Eighties principle of economic autonomy." Lilla regards this as a toxic blend and "a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century."

The synthesis of the Sixties and Eighties is "a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin." This sounds oxymoronic to the extent that a Jacobin is someone who tends to politicize everything as part of a revolutionary project, but Lilla sees the TPs a revolutionaries against politics itself, politics being understood here as any institutionalized collective endeavor. Lilla's TP Jacobins "have two classic American traits that have grown more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing -- and unwarranted -- confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

Lilla's trying to account for the virulent anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism of "the libertarian mob." He sees dangerous consequences of this attitude in the growing number of unvaccinated children, the growing sum of money spent yearly on "unregulated herbal medicines," and the increasing resort to "many dangerous medicines banned in the United States," purchased online. Here he makes a sweeping judgment that doesn't necessarily apply to TPs only:

Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.

The word Lilla may be looking for is autodidactism. To an extent the Think 3 Institute itself endorses this principle in our motto: "Figure it out for yourselves or obey without question." But the resolution to figure everything out for yourself has a bad side if you don't also resolve to hold yourself to a rigorous intellectual standard. The archetype of the wrong sort of autodidact is Adolf Hitler, who read extensively but always, he claimed, with the object of confirming his own suppositions and prejudices. Lilla suggests that something similar is going on in America as Americans "vote with their feet," sometimes virtually, to segregate themselves into "local communities where they share their neighbors' general political outlook and where they can be sure that their voices will be echoed back to them." He describes this trend as a reaction to the growing complexity and diversity of government, some of which Lilla himself claims has made government less effective. But as far as his libertarian populist Jacobins are concerned, he thinks, the main complaint is that they don't hear themselves or their values "echoed" by government. This is as close as Lilla comes to suggesting that some kind of bigotry (apart from paranoid suspicions about the President's origins) fuels his subjects.

While the "anti-elitist" element of Tea-ism is undeniable, I think Lilla exaggerates the "childlike optimism" angle. I don't claim much firsthand experience of the movement, but my impression from what I have heard and read isn't that the TPs assume that they'll succeed in everything without government interference. Reaganite optimism (antithetical in many ways to authentic conservatism) does influence the movement, but a stronger element, as I see it, is a resentment, split between contempt and envy, of people on every level of the economy who "whine" whenever they suffer setbacks and run begging for government aid when the authentic Tea Partier would feel too ashamed to do so. That is, they resent a system that rewards behaviors (whining, begging for handouts) they consider beneath themselves. The core assumption isn't that they'll all get rich absent the welfare state, but that their pride should be validated in an ideal society in which everyone else would be too ashamed to do anything in adverse straits but work harder.

There's a twist in Lilla's story: "Survey after survey confirms that trust in government is dissolving in all advanced democratic societies, and for the same reason," he writes, "as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively." So something's going on that's not exceptionally American. Nevertheless, this country's presumably peculiar "libertarian spirit" may have accelerated the trend here. It even dooms the Tea Party movement itself to short life, since it can't evolve into a lasting political force while its members are "ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind." Again, I think Lilla exaggerates slightly. To the extent that Tea Partiers identify themselves with the entrepreneurial class, I assume that they endorse one of the fundamental hierarchies of society, that of employer and employees. I suspect that they do distrust hierarchy, however, whenever it places someone above them, whether its a government bureaucrat or any kind of boss. As Lilla puts it near the end of his essay, "They don't want the rule of the people, though that's what they say. They want to be people without rules." This, too, may be unfair, but it comes close to some kind of truth about the movement.

I find it interesting, given the continued weakness of libertarian politicians in electoral politics, that more people seem to be indicting libertarianism as a corrupting element in American politics and culture. While Lilla attacks from someplace slightly left of center, as best as I can tell, a future post will detail what's perhaps a more powerful attack on libertarianism, encompassing the entire American Bipolarchy, from the thoughtful right.

1 comment:

Mike M. said...

I think some of the anger from both the left and the right comes from the fact that in 2008 the people at the very top of the economy, who had lectured the country for years about the "virtues of the free market" as the main organizing force of the country and economy went running to the Treasury for a handout as soon as trouble struck.

There was a kind of "This is John Galt speaking... please send money" moment.