But the Tea Partiers are closer to the New Left. They don’t seek to form a counter-establishment because they don’t believe in establishments or in authority structures. They believe in the spontaneous uprising of participatory democracy. They believe in mass action and the politics of barricades, not in structure and organization. As one activist put it recently on a Tea Party blog: “We reject the idea that the Tea Party Movement is ‘led’ by anyone other than the millions of average citizens who make it up.”
For this reason, both the New Left and the Tea Party movement are radically anticonservative. Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin — on the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization — in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the accumulated wisdom of the ages and structure individual longings.
That idea was rejected in the 1960s by people who put their faith in unrestrained passion and zealotry. The New Left then, like the Tea Partiers now, had a legitimate point about the failure of the ruling class. But they ruined it through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and naïve radicalism. The Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P., but it seems as though the ’60s political style will always be with us — first on the left, now the right.