In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla puts the Tea Party Movement in historical context. It is, he writes, the natural outgrowth of both the Counter Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's. On the surface, the latter seems to be a reaction to the former. But, in reality, both are cut from the same piece of cloth:
A new form of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that.
Like Huck Finn, they wish to live on a raft and have little contact with the civilization on the shore -- which, they see as corrupt, while they are noble savages. The problem, of course, is that occasionally one has to go ashore for supplies. And occasionally -- like the two frauds with whom Huck and Jim share that raft -- civilization invades your living space.
From their imaginary raft, Lilla writes, the Partiers have conjured up a vision in which
. . . educated elites -- politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers -- are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seat belts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink . . . the list is long.
There is something appealing about their rebellion. And so, over the years, citizens in both the United States and Canada have voted for governments which have advocated deregulation -- or, in the words of the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, have "no place in the bedrooms of the nation." And they have approved, as governments dismantled the mechanisms which previous generations constructed to deal with disasters.
For some problems require a communitarian response -- because they are too big to be solved by individuals. The past decade has had more than its share of such problems. Hurricane Katrina, the Financial Meltdown of 2008, and the present catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico are beyond individual solution. Nonetheless, a significant number of people refuse to recognize that fact. And, when president Obama proposes a solution for a particularly big problem -- the lack of medical care for 40 million Americans -- they rise in anger, convinced that the president is a new King George, who must be deposed.
They call themselves "conservatives." But they are the diametrical opposites of Edmund Burke. Rather than preserving social institutions they are hell bent on tearing them down. Rather than standing against the mob, they are the mob -- in Lilla's phrase, "the libertarian mob." And, as such, they represent a challenge to both political parties. As a mob, they are a clear and present danger. But their anger cannot be denied. The challenge for political leaders is to direct that anger rather than -- like the Jacobins of the French Revolution -- to follow it.
For Obama, they are a conundrum. Led by Glenn Beck -- who looks at Obama and sees Hitler; and Rush Limbaugh -- who looks at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and sees an administration conspiracy; and Pat Buchanan -- who looks at Obama's choice to replace John Paul Stevens and sees "too many Jews" -- they are Ignorance with a big megaphone.
But the solution is not a bigger megaphone. The solution will require all the rhetorical skills Obama possesses -- and the ability to think beyond the anger of today.