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Tea Party Politics

Does the movement have anything in common with the New Left?

3:34 PM, Mar 8, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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On Friday, David Brooks wrote a column likening the Tea Partiers to the 1960s-era New Left. "Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence," he wrote. "Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures."

Then, over the weekend, Jonah Goldberg wrote a compelling rebuttal

One of the reasons all of this is relevant is that the basic arguments and outlook of the Tea Parties are simply and profoundly different from the outlook of the New Left. The Tea Partiers are not in any meaningful sense Rousseauians. They certainly don't reject original sin in any serious way. And I suspect if you asked many of them they would say that the American people deserve their share of blame for the financial mess we're in. They do believe, I would bet, that America is a basically decent nation that has drifted into a kind of soft-despotism or Nanny-statism. But that vision isn't Rousseauian, it's De Tocquevillian.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

A regular correspondent of mine seconded Goldberg's point with these words:

The New Left sought to disrupt the normal workings of society.  The Tea Party movement was just a normal group of citizens tired of getting computer generated non-responses from their government, which was about to do something they hated.  Things got a little testy in August after they had been told to sit down, be quiet, and be respectful of their betters, but, aside from the occasional booing of Representatives who deserved to be booed, I personally saw nothing violent or unlawful.

Brooks is correct to point out that the Tea Party has appropriated certain forms of "direct action" which the left used in the 1960s. Some activists interrupted town hall meetings last summer. The 9/12 march was a mass protest of the sort you don't usually see on the right. Even so, as my correspondent notes, the Tea Party's actions are far less intense and radical than those of the left four decades ago. What you have is a large group of people who are gravely concerned with government spending, taxation, and naiveté towards America's adversaries. They don't want to re-write the calendar. They just think the government should pay more attention to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Yes, every movement has its fringe. But even Jonathan Raban, writing in the New York Review of Books of all places, notes that most of the Tea Partiers he met at their recent convention were mainstream: "Only once did I find myself with a group of people from whose company I was glad to escape."

Raban attended the convention as a delegate, as someone who has "my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of mass surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, and the rest." His observations are worth considering. What he found was that the speakers were often more radical and conspiracy-minded than the actual delegates. After a speech by Joseph Farah, a woman tells Raban: "'My first thought was, "This guy's a liberal plant." I thought we came here to talk about taxes and government spending and national defense.'"

The lesson I draw from Raban's essay is that the Tea Party issues -- spending, taxes, and American strength -- have been the key to Republican fortunes over the last year. They are the glue that binds a Republican-leaning independent in Arizona to a die-hard social conservative from Georgia to a Democratic-leaning independent in Massachusetts. They are the same issues that drove the Reagan Democrats to the polls in 1980 and 1984. They are the basis of the conservative revival -- not any GOP attempts to copy whatever gimmick David Cameron's Tories are deploying today (ineffectively, one might add). Deviate from these three, as the Republicans did during Bush's second term, and you lose the Tea Party. And thus your majority.

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