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That’s what Simon Schama sees coming:
Objectively, economic conditions might be improving, but perceptions are everything and a breathing space gives room for a dangerously alienated public to take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations. What happened to the march of income, the acquisition of property, the truism that the next generation will live better than the last? The full impact of the overthrow of these assumptions sinks in and engenders a sense of grievance that “Someone Else” must have engineered the common misfortune.
Yes, sometimes it’s what Schama says it is — a mere sense of grievance, as opposed to the real thing. But America’s tea-party uptick in popular politics can’t be explained away by reference to our grievance culture. Schama implies what Mark Lilla just made explicit in the New York Review of Books — that populist activism today is neo-Jacobin. Pre-revolutionary France simmered in a toxic mix of real tyranny and what Tocqueville called ‘literary politics’ — an approach so unreal in its unreason, abstraction, and utopianism that all attempts to realize it in the flesh and blood world of human affairs issued forth merely in the blood of the Terror. Despite the impact of ‘literary politics’ on the tenor of today’s public life, our “common misfortune” is hardly a fever dream. Christopher Lasch rightly warned that upward mobility can grow cultish. But it’s hardly a doctrine dissevered from reality.
Rather than a fever dream, it’s the American Dream that’s reorienting people to the possibilities of active citizenship (That’s something a fairminded fan of Lasch ought to commend; the American Dream isn’t simply the marketing campaign for the cult of upward mobility.) Hunter S. Thompson pronounced the American Dream dead two whole election cycles before Lasch became the inspiration for Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech. But as wrong a track as we’re on today, 2009 is no 1979. That doesn’t mean the populist dyspepsia of today is a self-indulgent fantasy. It means many of us want to change course now before we sail into a new malaise. No matter how heated or attenuated the rhetoric can get in democratic life, the peril and the promise powering tea party populism are rooted in reality. Downplaying that fact can lead to other fever dreams — like Schama’s strange vision of “head tutor” Barack Obama, “a warrior of the word every bit as combative as the army of the righteous that believes it has the constitution on its side[.]” One gets the feeling Schama is against all literary politics except his own.