“The Tea Partiers also say they want to empower ordinary folk against the privileged few. But who do they mean by “privileged few?” Unlike the original Populists, the Tea Partiers don’t mean moneyed interests. After all, while they oppose bailing out banks, they also oppose more aggressively regulating them. In fact, the Tea Party crowd wants less government oversight over Wall Street. As Tea Party Convention keynote speaker Sarah Palin declared a while back, ‘We got into this mess because of government interference in the first place.’
“By privileged few, in fact, the Tea Party crowd means government. The ordinary folks are the voters and the privileged few are the people who run Washington in disregard of their wishes. For the original Populists, the answer to this problem was more democracy: reforms that made Washington more responsive to voters and less responsive to moneyed interests. But the Tea Partiers have no interest in such reforms. They simply take it as a fact that Washington is unresponsive and self-interested. While the Populists wanted to empower government as they democratized it, the Tea Partiers want to disempower government because they don’t believe it can be democratized. And by disempowering government—by reducing its oversight of Wall Street, as Palin demanded at the Tea Party convention—the Tea Partiers actually strengthen the very moneyed interests that the Populists wanted to restrain.”
“In other words, the American passion for absolute liberty isn’t too far removed from heedless adolescent rebellion. The ‘tea party’ faithful might as well be Marlon Brando in his black leather jacket in ‘The Wild One.’ ‘What are you rebelling against,’ a girl asks the smoldering Brando. ‘What’ve you got?’ he replies.
“So, yes, there are reasons to be suspicious of government, and yes, our yearning to be ‘masterless’ has created a culture that sends adventurers on the open road and pioneers looking for the next frontier. But it’s also making it increasingly difficult for government to function.
“I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that vigilance — protest, activism, anger — is the price of freedom. But with the national government in gridlock, I’m beginning to worry that our ‘don’t tread on me’ birthright has a deeper and darker cost.
“It’s not a matter of left or right. In my mind the only difference between 1960s leftist radicals and new millennium right-wing refuseniks is the length of their hair. They both have showed a desperate need to work through their issues with old King George.”
“So now we have a country absolutely teeming with irregular passions and artful misrepresentations, whipped up to an unprecedented pitch and volume by the fundamentally new means of 24/7 cable and the hyperdemocratic web. And instead of a calm club of like-minded wise men (and women) in Washington compromising and legislating, we have a Republican Establishment almost entirely unwilling to defy or at least gracefully ignore its angriest, most intemperate and frenzied faction—the way Reagan did with his right wing in the eighties and the way Obama is doing with his unhappy left wing now. Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and their compatriots are ideologues who default to uncivil, unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance, as Keith Olbermann does on the left. Fine; in free-speech America, that’s the way we roll. But the tea-party citizens are under the misapprehension that democratic governing is supposed to be the same as democratic discourse, that elected officials are virtuous to the extent that they too default to unbudging, sky-is-falling recalcitrance and refusal. And the elected officials, as never before, are indulging that populist fantasy.
“Just as the founders feared, American democracy has gotten way too democratic.”
“Since the 60s, Democrats have been reluctant to wave the flag and are uncomfortable with anything that evokes the spirit of ’76. Words like ‘patriot’ and ‘minuteman’ unnerve them, not only because they have been co-opted by the right, but because they are used to christen nuclear weapons and vigilante groups along the Mexican border. And the ethnic monochromaticism of the Tea Party movement is equally abhorrent. Latinos and blacks are not invited to tea parties. Well, maybe as caterers.
“One of the things that helped get Obama elected was that he was really cool. This made Democrats feel cool. Tea Party types are not cool. But there are an awful lot of them out there. The Democrats thus find themselves in a bind. They cannot continue to cede the public stage to the Tea Partyers. They cannot simply sit back and do nothing. Maybe they should try torchlight parades. Or coffee claques. Perhaps even fistfights. But they better try something soon. Trouble’s a-brewin’.”