Friday, May 28, 2010

The Meaning of the Tea Party

The movement's "ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help' of experts and professionals." We've delegated responsibility for our "core institutions"—public schools and colleges, health care, finance, retirement, government at all levels-to those experts, and all of them "cost more than we can pay," but "don't do what we need."

At the same time, the things that the governing structures now perform badly are things that really do need to be done, and done well. Conservatives have to finish the sentence, to explain how shrewdly delimited government can succeed where sloppy, undisciplined government has failed. Conservatives could offer "innovative leadership" with the help of a "new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future," according to Mead. The political problem is that the Tea Party populists may not accede to a conservative agenda set by a different set of experts and professionals. Populists "want big and simple ideas," Mead writes, not "intricate, finely crafted reforms whose beauty can only be appreciated by a few." If there's hope for a conservative coalition that overcomes those tensions, it resides in the constant awareness of a much bigger governmental and even civilizational threat—that the "dysfunction of the current system" will drive us "into a massive social and financial crisis."

The Tea Party mission can be described in another way. What's at stake in the war conservatives have declared on Obamacare is not only 18% of our economy, but 100% of our polity. If the anger over what the Democrats enacted, and the way they passed it, is replaced by acquiescence, America will have taken a big step toward having not only policies but political processes that are indistinguishable from Europe's. If the people who brought you Obamacare are not rebuked in the elections of 2010 and 2012, they, emboldened, will pursue further social transformations, regardless of popular opposition. Our ruling elites will eagerly adopt their European counterparts' posture toward the people: You are wrong. We know better. We will do this, and you will like it. To permit Obamacare to stand is to permit such an assertion to go unchallenged, and guarantee that it will become routine. By their passivity, the people will be complicit in their own disempowerment. As Frederick Douglass said in 1857, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them."