01.10.10

In Defense of Tea Parties

Popular though it may be for "educated" people to sneer at the Tea Party crowd, professional politicians dismiss the movement at their peril. Tunku Varadarajan on the power of political amateurs.

David Brooks, The New York Times op-ed columnist, is a friend of mine. Flying always at 40,000 feet above ground, he strives to observe the political landscape with a dispassionate conservatism. His best columns are spare and thoughtful, and offer reliable contrast to the gaudiness of Maureen Dowd, the glibness of Tom Friedman, the mediocrity of Bob Herbert, and the mawkishness of Nicholas Kristof. Yet last Tuesday, in a column titled “The Tea Party Teens,” David made irrefutably clear that he, too—like so many others in the mainstream metropolitan media—is a cultural supremacist.

The column was about the Tea Party movement, which has, in the space of a year, come to inhabit—and inhabit raucously—the landscape that Brooks parses from his lofty perch. In the piece, he sets up a dialectic between “the educated class” on the one hand, and, on the other, a force that he identifies variously as “public opinion,” the “opposition,” and “the Tea Party movement.” The latter, a “fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against,” are, David writes, reflexively opposed to the beliefs of the educated class (to which he, naturally, belongs). They are, in effect, reactionaries.

The Tea Partiers, it is said, are crude, sloganeering, lemming-like, heartland Bible-Beltists who don’t understand policy or David Brooks’ subtleties.

Put to one side, for the moment, David’s exaggeratedly Hamiltonian belief in the natural leadership abilities of people like him, and ask this: What exactly is this “educated class,” and what leads him to think that those who oppose it are not, somehow, sophisticated? Forgive me, here, for bringing to the discussion a personal note. I have a cousin who is a Wellesley graduate, a widely traveled, thirty-something, multilingual daughter of Indian immigrants who lives in that most redneck of territories…Union Square, in Manhattan. She is a Tea Party supporter, and she wrote me these words in an email:

I laugh, but also feel indignant, when I read that the tea parties are filled with angry white men, because it’s obvious that reporters are not attending the same tea parties I attended. The events were a mix of young and old, VERY mixed ethnicities (but yes, a majority white). Everyone to a person was courteous and polite, and the best part was the signs, which were funny and clever. It did feel very grassroots and very much a movement fueled by the people rather than by shadowy party apparatchiks. It felt cool to think that we were not going to be taken in by government and be told what was good for us. (Does that sound really hokey?) It felt good to be a part of a group of people who were saying “enough!” I’m a huge supporter of the tea party movement because I think it exists outside of the traditional parties and is a true manifestation of the voice of the citizen.

Not everyone in the movement is a Wellesley graduate, and I bring my cousin into the story only as a forensic counterpoint to David’s fixation with the “educated class.” America doesn’t really have a class system, but that fact makes it tough for people like David, who sometimes seem to wish it did. The traditional solution has been to attend an Ivy League school if possible—or just cop an “intellectual” attitude if not—and then look down on the rest of America. When America was less of a meritocracy (and that was not so long ago), this solution was less damaging. Now that the country is run mostly by graduates of Ivy League schools, however, that they look down on the electorate is becoming not only vastly irritating to the electorate but also rather dangerous. Elitism, now, might have adverse political consequences—and a backlash.

David Brooks is not alone in his disdain: On right and left, “educated” people have given vent to their contempt for the Tea Party crowd, leading me to conclude that there must, surely, be considerable significance in a movement that has had scorn poured on it by such varied names as David Frum, who is also, like Brooks, a friend of mine; Michael Goldfarb, a former spokesman for the McCain presidential campaign; Paul Krugman; Chris Matthews; and Keith Olbermann. (For a full account of the media’s ill treatment of the movement, read A New American Tea Party, by John M. O’Hara.) Many people, one might conclude, are afraid of the Tea Party movement: On the left, they are afraid that it will initiate a tidal wave that causes the loss of numerous House seats. On the right, the fear is that it will mount its own candidates and simply be a spoiler.

This fear would explain the sneering toward the Tea Partiers, the smugness with which they are looked down upon. As many in the movement note, you need only change the protesters ideologically and demographically, and you have merely another cool example of “community organizing.” Besides, the civic engagement and participation, as demonstrated by the Tea Party movement, seem to be very much like that which the communitarians (Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer) and the social-capital scholars (like Robert Putnam)—not to mention other high-minded and good-hearted men and women of the left—have for decades been calling for.

What bothers me, however, is that although ideological differences are at the bottom of the Tea Party assaults, the critique is almost purely aesthetic: The Tea Partiers, it is said, are crude, sloganeering, lemming-like, heartland Bible-Beltists who don’t understand policy or David Brooks’ subtleties. (Interestingly, the Alexander Cockburns and Glenn Greenwalds do not attack the Tea Partiers, whom they see as possible grassroots disrupters of entrenched interests. Neither man went after Sarah Palin much, or quickly. The far left is better than the neo-liberal kind on such matters, in my view.)

It is hardly surprising that in times like these there should be a large, angry, populist movement. But populism does not conform to the standard left/right divide, and in different circumstances it can go either way. (A rather good Greenwald column makes this point, too.) The populist’s personality is driven as much by wounded pride as by economic concerns, and so he resents the cultural elitism of the liberal elites, including their patronizing desire to help him, as much as the economic elitism of the wealthy.

Yes, the populists fear and hate the big businesses and Wall Street; but—and this is the heartening thing—they have not let this turn them against capitalism and the free market. They seem truly to have taken in the point, long emphasized by libertarians and others, that big business is not the same thing as capitalism or the free market, that it is in fact often their enemy. Perhaps the Obama administration has finally driven this point home, as it has been an object lesson in how the party of big government is really in bed with big business, giving it all the bailouts and favors. So by this reckoning, the Tea Parties would be a very serious development in which anti-big business forces would finally join with anti-big government forces to create a genuine free-market party that would maximize the opportunities of the little guy—like this small-business owner from California. (Note, this YouTube clip has nearly 250,000 hits and 6,000 comments.)

This video makes me emotional, because this woman represents an America that Tocqueville would have lauded. I will take her any day over the “educated class,” the bureaucratic mollusks and the defeatist sad sacks in Washington. I do think the Tea Partiers are political amateurs, but the content of their politics is deadly serious. The professional politicians will dismiss them at their peril.

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Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)