16 June 2010

The Revolution of Attitude: The Tea Parties' Anti-Intellectual Revolt against Elite 'Hegemony'

The latest diagnosis of the Tea Party movement comes from Lee Harris, who writes for the Hoover Institute's Policy Review journal. This emanation from a conservative think tank presents conservative intellectuals with a stark choice: embrace the Tea Parties or prepare for irrelevance. Harris appears to believe that the intellectuals need to get over their condescending reservations about the mentality or attitude of Tea Partiers. In his view, their attitude is just what makes them a vital, potentially revolutionary force, and it should outweigh any of the admittedly bad proposals that many TPs propagate.

Harris is quick to concede that Tea Partiers don't really have any new ideas about politics. He might even agree that many TPs have no ideas at all. As he sees them, the Tea Parties are all about attitude, specifically the attitude symbolized by the "Don't Tread On Me" banner so often seen at such events. This attitude is the natural reaction of a previously apolitical population that has been suddenly and radically politicized.
[In the past] They were apathetic and apolitical. They did not interest themselves in public affairs, usually because they didn’t find public affairs very interesting. They had better things to think about — their jobs, their families, their homes, their cars, their favorite sports team. If other people were willing to tackle the complicated and tedious problems associated with governing the nation and defending it against foreign foes more power to them. So long as the managerial elite was taking care of business, and ruffling no one’s feathers, ordinary Americans were content to stay on the sidelines. The silent majority would remain contentedly silent, provided that the elite in charge of things did nothing to offend or outrage them.

This is no longer the case. The shock of September 11, the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the debacle following hurricane Katrina, the inability to control illegal immigration, the financial crisis, the massive bailout, the election of Barack Obama — all these events catastrophically undermined the implicit trust that the silent majority once placed in the competency of our national leadership. For many it has become an article of faith that something has gone terribly wrong with our country.

One key to understanding the Tea Partiers, Harris argues, is their previous lack of political engagement or awareness. Their prior detachment means that they've never learned the habits of deference to political experts that (he contends) constrain conservative intellectuals. If there is a widening schism between conservative intellectuals and TPs, Harris traces it to the intellectuals' yearning for validation from fellow intellectuals or opinion leaders, whether those are conservative or not. The Tea Partiers, by comparison, don't care what those people think, and they don't care what conservative intellectuals think, either.

Harris borrows from Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci the notion of hegemony to explain conservative intellectuals' alienation from a mass movement that's on their side. To the extent that they are intellectuals, conservative intellectuals are bedazzled by the prestige of the intellectual and cultural elite, even when they disagree politically or ideologically with its consensus on many issues. Conservative intellectuals aspire too much to intellectual respectability, Harris suggests, while the Tea Partier is more inclined to tell the cultural or intellectual elite to go to hell. Intellectual conservatives, he fears, have a hard time bringing themselves to do this even when it might be the right thing to do.

According to Harris, Gramsci believed that the only people immune to the hegemony of prestige were society's "marginalized outsiders." The peasants of Gramsci's native Sardinia defied the snobbery of their fellow Italians by adopting something like the Tea Partiers' "don't tread on me" attitude. It may be a stretch, given surveys of Tea Party demographics, to equate them with poor Mediterraneans, but Harris sees an admirable likeness in each group's stubborn resistance to that most awful of tyrannies, being taught how to live by "elites." Harris clearly believes that there is a intellectual and cultural elite in America that aspires to impose a hegemony over society that would compromise liberty. Freedom's strongest line of defense against this assault is that force that concedes nothing to the elite and doesn't care what it thinks, of them or of anything.

What's the danger of elite hegemony? Harris explains:
What sparked the Tea Party revolt is mounting dissatisfaction at living in a society in which a small group has increasingly solidified its monopoly over the manufacture and distribution of opinion, deciding which ideas and policies should be looked upon favorably and which political candidates will be sympathetically reported. Even more, the Tea Party rebels bitterly resent the rigid censorship exercised by this elite over the limits of acceptable public discourse. Those who have the power to rule an opinion “out of order” do not need to take the trouble to refute it, or even examine it. They can simply make it go away.

When the forbidden thoughts are deeply repugnant to us personally, it is easy to sympathize with the goal of the censors. The elimination of racist thinking, along with all the other forms that bigoted intolerance can assume, would surely be a national blessing. But this blessing would come at a steep price. If the censors have the power to eliminate thoughts they find objectionable, what will prevent them from abusing their formidable capacity by imposing their own narrow agenda on the rest of society, and for their own selfish purposes? Indeed, what is to keep them from establishing a totalitarian regime that does not need to rely on terror or brute force simply because it has developed far more effective methods of obtaining the consent of the masses — namely, cultural indoctrination?

Note that the "narrow agenda" is assumed and neither proved nor even defined. It's probably assumed to be narrow simply because it's the agenda of an elite. Nor does Harris ever demonstrate that the Tea Party agenda (or "attitude") is any less narrow. He probably didn't think he had to. The important thing is that the elite not dictate, however gently or subtly, to anyone else -- and whether the others could stand some dictation, direction, education or good advice is irrelevant. There is no freedom, we might infer from Harris's sympathetic account, without the freedom to be stupid.
[T]he fact that the Tea Party movement does not give a damn about the current standards of intellectual respectability makes it problematic for the intellectual, who cannot take the same attitude. But it is also the characteristic that justifies the Tea Party’s claim to be revolutionary. To be sure, this is not the revolution envisioned by Marx, in which the working class overthrows the capitalist class. It is rather the revolt of common sense against privileged opinion makers, and, by its very nature, it can only be carried out by men and women who are not constrained by the standards of intellectual respectability current in polite company. Again, it is precisely their status as marginalized outsiders that allows them to defy the monopoly of prestige possessed by the cultural insiders. This fact may put them beyond the pale as far as the conservative intellectuals are concerned, but it is precisely what makes them a force capable of resisting the liberal elite’s efforts to achieve cultural hegemony — a resistance that conservative intellectuals had hoped to mount but which they have not mounted, which explains why the Tea Party movement has so little use for them as a whole.

For Harris, this is a simple defense of the principle of self-government, which he finds under siege from the "liberal elite." He concedes that some kind of elite or expert rule is inevitable, but he thinks that the best way to keep it honest is to keep it accountable to (or simply afraid of) people who refuse to be impressed by their elite expertise. He doesn't appear to think it important for such dissidents to prove the validity of their objections; that would imply that the uneducated are answerable to the educated in some undemocratic way. Harris appears willing to stand some degree of stupidity (he dismisses TP advocacy of the gold standard, for instance), so long as it holds off the spectre of unlimited elite power to do...whatever. See if you find his closing thoughts inspiring or chilling.
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.

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