An Age of Rage?

 

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.

There are 16 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Contributor
    @JamesPoulos

    Update: In his New York Times column this morning, Ross Douthat intriguingly — and, I think, smartly — suggests there are some significant distinctions to be found between Rand Paul and the Tea Party phenomenon that propelled him in large part to victory.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    Good point.

    What I think the tea party truly fears, and accurately is protesting, is not merely a sense of being left behind, but the fundamental, hidden transformation of the government which Tocquville wrote about in The Old Regime and the Revolution. France’s government slowly became more and more centralized, so that when the revolution occured, the outward visage of the government changed, but the centralized power stayed the same.

    I think in many ways, we are witnessing the same transformation. Increased power grabs by the federal government lead one to imagine a future in which the centralization stands while the formal interaction between people and the federal government changes.

    Those who dismiss the tea party point to the outward appearances which have not yet transformed. The tea parties are focused on the fundamental, material transformation, rather than the outward, formal transformation. Although that transformation is coming, if we continue to allow federal power to amass.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    Two things amaze me about the Tea Party: 1) there isn’t a Tea Party leader. The movement really hasn’t coalesced around any one person. There’s no Tea Party personality, no Tea Party standard bearer, and emerging Tea Party candidate. Has this happened before in American politics? And 2) it’s resolutely about not just Obama’s spending (which is of course egregious and irresponsible) but the entire culture of government spending, the constellation of entitlements and subsidies that have emerged during the past few decades. Look, if we repealed every single Obama expenditure, we’d still be in a heap of trouble.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I’m frankly impressed it’s gone on this long without being co-opted into a GOP trojan horse.

    People realize the problem isn’t just left or right anymore, it’s the people vs. the state.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I have attended a couple Tea Party events on 4/15, here in Sacramento this year and last. Both times I have attended I have gone away both optimistic and impressed. Optimistic because of what I believe they portend for our nation. Impressed because that optimism was set in context by two wonderfully illuminating books by Wm. Strauss & Neil Howe. ‘Generations’ and ‘The Fourth Turning’.

    Both of these books were prescient at the time of their writing, anticipating, in ‘Generations’, an event of the sort that 9/11, turned out to be, and, in ‘The Fourth Turning’, a movement such as the Tea Party seems to be.

    I would heartily endorse both of these, especially ‘The Fourth Turning’, for people interested in understanding the Tea Party movement in a broader historical context.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Editor
    @RobLong

    Hey, Tom, next time you go to a Tea Party event, please send us some pictures. I’d love to see them.

    Also: I’m a big fan of The Fourth Turning. And I think you’re right — there is something generational going on here. It’s as if the generation after the Boomers realizes that it’s going to be the Sacrifice Generation. If you’re in your 30’s or 40’s (like me) you know in your bones you’re not going to be seeing that FICA money they slice out of your paycheck.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    For what it’s worth, I have a collection of pictures from this year’s Houston Tax Day Tea Party here.

    It was a great event. The speakers were good and the signs were hilarious. One read “I was going to go to the Tea Party in Galveston [an island], but I was afraid it might capsize.” I only spotted two birther signs and all the “infiltrators” were open about being liberals. One wore a t-shirt that read “SOCIALIST”, another guy (who came with his girlfriend) had a Che t-shirt; both were just there to gawk. A small group had Obama signs, but the tea partiers quickly descended upon them with signs reading “InfilTRATOR” and “ACORN Nut.”

    Since this was Texas, I wasn’t surprised that one of the speakers was pro-secession, but overall the speakers were good.

    Overall, it was a lot better than the tea party I attended last tax day in my hometown of Hanford, CA, which had an open mic. Some Council on Foreign Relations/North American Union conspiracy kooks from some tiny local church tried to use the open mic forum to turn the event into a revival meeting. Pictures from that event can be viewed here.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @

    I wanted to add an anecdote and a theory to the Tea Party discussion.

    First, I know very few people my age – if any – who hold out any hope of seeing FICA benefit them at old age. I am in my twenties and know no one, from the staunchest conservative to the most unabashed liberal, that has any illusion about the eventual failure of our government safety net. Despite being politically-loaded, admitting you will “never see that money again” is completely acceptable in polite company. I have never seen a poll that either shows the attitudes of the (relatively) young on this topic or a study showing the average age of a Tea Partier.

    Second, does anyone think there is merit to the idea that the Tea Party represents a movement to break the Republican Party from social conservatism? It appears that the Tea Party is a distinctly libertarian movement. Most Republican “victims” of the movement have had impeccable conservative credentials on more abstract issues (pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage) with a spotty record on actual governance (spending, taxation, bailouts).

    I believe this theory would reinforce James’s thesis: the American people want less abstraction and more concrete results.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive
    @FeliciaB
    Overall, it was a lot better than the tea party I attended last tax day in my hometown of Hanford, CA, which had an open mic.

    No way! Small world! I graduated from HUHS! I don’t remember a lot of people from my time in Hanford because prior to my senior year, I’d spent 4 years in Latin America.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    FeliciaB: No way! Small world! I graduated from HUHS! I don’t remember a lot of people from my time in Hanford because prior to my senior year, I’d spent 4 years in Latin America. · May. 24 at 8:46pm

    That is seriously awesome!

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer

    “And 2) it’s resolutely about not just Obama’s spending (which is of course egregious and irresponsible) but the entire culture of government spending, the constellation of entitlements and subsidies that have emerged during the past few decades. Look, if we repealed every single Obama expenditure, we’d still be in a heap of trouble.”

    You hit the nail on the head. The opposition to the institutionalization of government bloat and power grabs is the foundation of the tea party movement. I hope that the tea parties will continue their impassioned critique of federal profligacy and overreach even if the GOP take back Congress and the White House. In fact, such grassroots pressure will be necessary even more for Republicans, otherwise we will never turn the ship of state around.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Contributor
    @AdamFreedman

    Oops, sorry I only meant to quote Patrick’s comment about FICA not being there when we get old (others made similar comments). I actually don’t think that’s the problem. Unless they find a way to disenfranchise old folks, I don’t see Congress making significant cuts in Social Security and Medicare – it’s political suicide. I think we’ll get our old-age benefits while the younger generation gets saddled with ever higher taxes, VAT and the like. I fear European-style taxation much more than cuts in Social Security.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Brian

    PatrickF:: Second, does anyone think there is merit to the idea that the Tea Party represents a movement to break the Republican Party from social conservatism? It appears that the Tea Party is a distinctly libertarian movement. Most Republican “victims” of the movement have had impeccable conservative credentials on more abstract issues (pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage) with a spotty record on actual governance (spending, taxation, bailouts).

    I think Rob Long is correct in suggesting something generational going on here. Is it that Tea Partiers are libertarian or are Tea Partiers suggesting that Conservatism as Fiscal as possible at the national level and push social conservatism to the states? Isn’t that the message of Tea Parties?

    I think this is a big tent way to go and much more capable of success. Stop the left from nationalizing every social issue, push it to the states and remove it from the national conversation. “the answer to your question about abortion, gay marriage, whatever is that states should have the right to decide.” Keep the federal focused on fiscal, foreign policy, and defense.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Adam, I think your analysis forgets the demographics. The old people are politically powerful now because they are large in number. Our Generation (X) is politically weak and will be overwhelmed electorally by the children of the Boomers (the even larger Gen Y) who are currently between the ages of 18-33. So the politics of the situation will change just as we are ready to collect our Keno money. It will start — as it surely should — by cutting payouts to those with means and continue from there. But that’s OK, because that Gen Y will still be drinking lattes and if I’m not too arthritic, I’ll have many good years of steaming milk to make up the difference.

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @JohnBoyer
    Brian Sharkey:

    I think Rob Long is correct in suggesting something generational going on here. Is it that Tea Partiers are libertarian or are Tea Partiers suggesting that Conservatism as Fiscal as possible at the national level and push social conservatism to the states? Isn’t that the message of Tea Parties? · May. 25 at 3:23pm

    Perhaps. But there a very large number of older voters who are participating in the tea party movement. It’s not composed of live and let live Gen Y libertarian types. Rather, I think the social issues are being fought away from the public eye. Obama isn’t pushing hard for abortion, gay marriage, [insert social issue here] compared to his push to expand government. I think what we see in the tea party is the appropriate response to a liberal power grab in the financial sectors and the economy.

    That said, I don’t think this means conservatives have become indifferent to the social issues. They’re just using their political muscle where it’s most needed right now.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Rob, here in Sacramento, if you get beyond the funny hats, T-shirts, and other accouterments, what you have is a real cross section of America. To be sure, as has been noted, the crowd is a bit too White to be fully ethnically representative. But you have everyone from kids being pulled by their parents in little red wagons, to blue-haired grandmothers, and everything in between. The coolest thing is that while there is passion displayed on issues such as taxation and smaller government, the general atmosphere and attitude is very up-beat and patriotic. It is a fun place to be. You sense that people are finding a sense of camaraderie that they miss under the daily assault of the MSM.

    • #16

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.