Saturday, October 16, 2010

Peter Berkowitz on Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement

by Michael Kaplan

Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution has written an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal taking liberal progressive pundits like E. J. Dionne to task for their less than knowledgeable analyses of the Tea Party movement. The critics of the Tea Party may have degrees from our top universities, but they are surprisingly ignorant of American political history and the founding principles embodied in the Constitution. Higher education is doing a terrible disservice (among many other disservices) to the younger generation of Americans by focusing on social history and trendy ethnic and gender group feel-good studies to the exclusion of political and military history. Not that I have anything against social history—I have done research in it—but I would agree with Berkowitz that social history and its focus on issues of race, class, and gender, is being used by some in the liberal progressive elite to condemn America as racist, exploitative, and patriarchal, rather than to understand the complex process of nation building. We need to study political and military history alongside social and cultural history to achieve a well-rounded and sophisticated understanding of the human condition.

While Paul Krugman labeled the Tea Party “AstroTurf,” a fake rather than a genuine grassroots movement, Dionne dismissed the Tea Party as a fringe of the far right, wallowing in paranoid fantasies that nobody should take seriously. Here, according to Berkowitz, Dionne is following in the footsteps of historian Richard Hofstadter who showed a consistent hostility to populist movements in his writings. Hofstadter popularized the notion of a “paranoid style” on the right that displayed “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Berkowitz concedes that Tea Party has its share of offbeat wingnuts; yes, some of its more prominent candidates have made statements and embraced policies that leave something to be desired. Then again so have liberal progressives. Berkowitz continues:

Born in response to President Obamas self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens lives.
In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.
But far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy. The Federalists who won ratification of the Constitution—most notably Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—shared with their Anti-Federalist opponents the view that centralized power presented a formidable and abiding threat to the individual liberty that it was government's primary task to secure. They differed over how to deal with the threat.

The Anti-Federalists—including Patrick Henry, Samuel Bryan and Robert Yates—adopted the traditional view that liberty depended on state power exercised in close proximity to the people. The Federalists replied in Federalist 9 that the science of politics, which had “received great improvement,” showed that in an extended and properly structured republic liberty could be achieved and with greater security and stability.
This improved science of politics was based not on abstract theory or complex calculations but on what is referred to in Federalist 51 as inventions of prudence grounded in the reading of classic and modern authors, broad experience of self-government in the colonies, and acute observations about the imperfections and finer points of human nature. It taught that constitutionally enumerated powers; a separation, balance, and blending of these powers among branches of the federal government; and a distribution of powers between the federal and state governments would operate to leave substantial authority to the states while both preventing abuses by the federal government and providing it with the energy needed to defend liberty.
Whether members have read much or little of The Federalist, the tea party movement's focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution. One reason this is poorly understood among our best educated citizens is that American politics is poorly taught at the universities that credentialed them. Indeed, even as the tea party calls for the return to constitutional basics, our universities neglect The Federalist and its classic exposition of constitutional principles.
Elite liberal progressives, who see themselves as champions of a childlike and easily misled American public who need guidance and protection, can’t get their heads around the idea that a grassroots movement can emerge from the right instead of the left. Krugman, Dionne, and other pundits who dismiss Jacksonian America (70% of the nation) as a tribe of kooks, wackos, and weirdos—boobus americanus—should not be surprised when the Jacksonian Tea Party rejects them and their patronizing condescension. Other liberal progressive pundits and academics simply can’t believe that Tea Partiers can have a proper understanding of history, one that’s different than their own. Lorelei Kelly, director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, a liberal internationalist NGO, writes in The Huffington Post (October 15, 2010) that the Tea Party in its ignorance has appropriated American history and symbolism and transformed them into kitsch. “The Tea Party is taking a joyride through the world of American ideals. Along the way, it has grabbed the best revolutionary symbols, the cinematic frustration of the masses, and an irreproachable sounding plan (Fiscal responsibility! Constitutionally limited government! Free markets! Yay!)” Kelly continues in the same condescending tone, “But it's all emotions and fantasy. Despite the symbolic appeal, Tea Partiers don't really speak to tradition. They speak to nostalgia. These signals resurrected from the past are not representative. They are kitsch.” Tea Partiers certainly don’t have the intellectual heft to understand America’s founding principles, rubes that they are. Again are progressives really surprised, given those attitudes, that Jacksonians turn away from them in disgust?

As Berkowitz makes clear the Tea Party patriots understand American liberty better than their supposed betters. “Our universities have produced two generations of highly educated people who seem unable to recognize the spirited defense of fundamental American principles, even when it takes place for more than a year and a half right in front of their noses.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan