Thursday, November 11, 2010

Historian Michael Kazin on the Patriotism of Dissent and Whether the Tea Party Can Endure

by Michael Kaplan

Michael Kazin is no fan of the Tea Party movement, but he believes that if it plays its cards right it can have enduring influence on American politics. Kazin, biographer of William Jennings Bryan (see also here, and here) and son of the great literary critic Alfred Kazin, is one of the leading historians of American populist movements. Like most academic historians he is liberal progressive in his politics, though he has been critical at times of the far left. Throughout his career Kazin has tried to answer what he considers the most important question a left-leaning historian can ask: “why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?”

Kazin is open in his patriotism, which is not the norm for liberal progressives: “I love my country. I love its passionate and endlessly inventive culture, its remarkably diverse landscape, its agonizing and wonderful history. I particularly cherish its civic ideals-social equality, individual liberty, a populist democracy-and the unending struggle to put their laudable, if often contradictory, claims into practice.” Kazin adheres to the patriotism of dissent, a self-critical brand of patriotism that calls on America to live up to its ideals, and has urged liberal progressives to embrace American patriotism in this version. Kazin even goes so far to say that liberal progressivism has a dim future if it sets itself up in uncompromising opposition to American exceptionalism. Unfortunately, most liberal progressives see patriotism and American exceptionalism as unthinking jingoism, “a smokescreen for U.S. hegemony,” and “a triumphal myth we should quickly outgrow.” The upsurge of flag-waving patriotism in the wake of September 11, 2001 only intensified the loathing and contempt in which liberal progressives hold Jacksonian nationalism and those who embrace it.

Unlike many on the left, Kazin recognizes the importance of Jacksonian populist nationalism in shaping the attitudes and commanding the loyalty of the American public for good and ill. The white supremacist side of Jacksonianism “dominated much of American life through the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth. It led some white Americans to justify exterminating Indians, others to hold slaves, and still others to bar immigrants who did not possess ‘Anglo-Saxon’ genes.” But America’s more tolerant civic nationalism enabled many Americans to fight against fascist and communist tyranny in Europe and to fight for justice at home. Historically, whatever influence the left has had in America has come from embracing Jacksonian-style Americanism and weaving it into the patriotism of dissent to persuade the American public to support progressive reform. “It may be,” Kazin writes,

that Americanism served as a substitute for socialism, an ideology of self-emancipation through equal opportunity that inoculated most citizens against the class-conscious alternative. But leftists made what progress they did by demanding that the nation live up to its stated principles, rather than dismissing them as fatally compromised by the racism of the founders or the abusiveness of flag-waving vigilantes. After all, hope is always more attractive than cynicism, and the gap between promise and fulfillment is narrower for Americanism than it is for other universalist creeds such as communism, Christianity, and Islam.
What liberal progressives have to come to terms with, Kazin insists, is that the American people are committed to Jacksonian nationalism and American exceptionalism. “Love of country was a demotic faith long before September 11, a fact that previous lefts understood and attempted to turn to their advantage.” Liberal internationalism has always been an elite faith, not a popular one. “In the United States, Karl Marx’s dictum that the workers have no country has been refuted time and again. It has been not wage earners but the upper classes-from New England gentry on the Grand Tour a century ago to globe-trotting executives and cybertech professionals today-who view America with an ambivalent shrug, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein's line, ‘America is my country, Paris is my hometown.’”

This goes to the heart of the liberal progressive dilemma. In 1970 the black radical Julius Lester summed up this dilemma, writing that “American radicals are perhaps the first radicals anywhere who have sought to make a revolution in a country which they hate.” Most liberal progressives want to transform America into something resembling European social democracy, jettisoning traditional American values and nationalism in favor of an ethereal cosmopolitanism. Jacksonian conservatives are turned off by progressives who show more concern with the supposed rights of terrorists than with the security of the American people. Liberal progressives want Americans to stop thinking of themselves as American patriots and start thinking of themselves as citizens of the world. This is a fool’s errand. A political movement or ideology that claims work for the benefit of the American people, yet rejects Jacksonian nationalism and American exceptionalism in favor of an anti-American internationalism, will alienate the larger part of the American people and condemn itself to elite irrelevance. The American people will never support any person or movement that does not love and cherish America first without question or reservation.

In a recent CNN interview, Kazin shared his thoughts on the Tea Party and the future. The media spotlight that was shone on the Tea Party’s grassroots politics, Kazin said, obscured the fact that Republicans still drew most of their financial and political support from corporate America. This is the usual liberal progressive put down of right-wing populism as sham populism and a tool of corporate interests. Joel Kotkin has pointed out how the social and economic elites—the upper and upper middle classes—have split into progressive and conservative wings. Liberal progressives draw the bulk of their financial and political support from young progressive Wall Street brokers, Hollywood, George Soros, and Silicon Valley (Bill Gates is a liberal Democrat), a fact that Kazin doesn’t bring up. Kazin does believe that the specific ideas and policy proposals of the Tea Party were less important to its success in the 2010 elections than its ability to articulate the anger that many Americans feel at a government they believe has grown too big and unaccountable. The Tea Party was also able to capture the unease that many Americans have with President Obama’s big government agenda. As political guru and historian Kevin Phillips, who Kazin quotes, once said, political conflict is often a question of “who hates whom.”

Placing the Tea Party in the context of earlier conservative movements, Kazin sums up what Jacksonian populist conservativism has stood for since the 1950s: “They favor an essentially unregulated economy, no large government presence with the exception of the military and the national security apparatus, and the moral values taught in evangelical Protestant and traditional Catholic churches.” This agenda has a broad appeal, especially its economic part, for perhaps 60% to 70% of the American public that is center right to right, much to the chagrin of liberal progressives (who really appeal to no more than 20% to 30% of the public). The Tea Party has energized and revitalized a moribund Republican Party still reeling from its devastating defeat in 2008. Remember when liberal progressive media pundits (and quite a few Republicans too) were announcing the death of conservatism? The Tea Party has shown that populist conservatism is alive and well, having captured the public imagination in a way not seen since the heyday of Ronald Reagan.

But Kazin also points out a dilemma facing the Tea Party and all conservatives. Americans might complain about big government and high taxes and demand smaller government and fewer services; but that usually means they want someone else’s services cut, while keeping the services they benefit from. We say we want one thing and then demand something else. Political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril, looking at this paradox in 1967, wrote that Americans are “operational liberals” but “ideological conservatives.” Elaborating on this, Kazin writes:
Put simply, Americans hate big government, but they love federal spending—as long as it benefits them and anyone else they regard as morally worthy: particularly the elderly, children, and veterans. Moreover, notwithstanding their conservatism on issues of gender and cultural expression, deeply religious Americans—of all faiths and political leanings—have tended to favor the state when it operates as a “good shepherd.” Thus, at an empathetic level, modern liberalism may not be so out of step with Godly America after all.
(Kazin, “A Liberal Nation In Spite of Itself,” International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 74 [Fall 2008], p. 38.)

While Jacksonian conservatives believe in limited government, they also believe that one of government’s proper functions is to promote the prosperity and well being of the American middle class (the Jacksonian folk community). In that tradition, the Tea Party is opposed to any cuts in middle-class entitlements like Social Security, Medicare, and mortgage loan deductions. Walter Russell Mead writes that “Joe Six-pack thinks of the welfare state as an expensive burden, not part of the natural moral order.” He does not, however, see middle-class entitlements as part of the welfare state, but rather as America making sure that those who’ve worked hard, played by the rules, created the nation’s wealth, and made the nation work, are not thrown under the bus. Americans, unlike Europeans, believe in self sufficiency, living within our means, and suffering the consequences if we don’t (in theory at least). But, when push comes to shove, we do want some social safety nets to cushion the blows if things don’t work out as we hope.

Kazin predicts that the Tea Party will probably disband as an organization after the 2012 election. This may be wishful thinking on his part. If this should happen, I think it would be because the Tea Party will have succeeded in taking over the Republican Party just as Reagan and the conservative movement did in the 1970s. Either way the Tea Party’s ideas can have an enduring influence on American politics if the new Tea Party members of Congress are patient—remember the Democrats still control the Senate and President Obama is still in the White House—and develop a long-term strategy to advance their policy objectives. The Tea Party movement might then be remembered in history as having brought about an American revival in the 2010s as Reagan did in the 1980s.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan


  1. I'm still wondering about one thing that the liberal progressives don't seem to get and that is indeed American Exceptionalism. This as you state goes to the very heart of out culture. Love of country is very much alive here. It's interesting when you consider the old Soviet Union in this context. (I'm really not a trained writer in any sense of the word, so i hope I'm phrasing this correctly. LOL!) PArt of the reason that it fell was because Russians had finally had enough, and not just as to starvation! Love of Mother Russia won out in the end. Same here. We are a country built on basic tenets. Those tenets are the exact opposite of what the progressives want. In the end, our basic ideals usually win out.

    I personally believe the Tea Party or at least it's basic premise will not only survive but become stronger. The people have woken up to what I feel is the creeping Marxist Socialism that has been destroying our country. As I've said before. I pray it isn't to late.

  2. You bring up a good point about the enduring power of Russian nationalism. The Russian people love their country passionately in all its tragedy and grandeur. They fought so fiecely in World War II for Mother Russia, not for Stalin. Vladimir Putin's moves to recreate the Russian empire are based on Russian nationalism, not communism--he's a throwback to Tsarist Russia, not the Soviet Union.

    I really don't think we're in any danger from Marxism here in America. American exceptionalism and our democratic institutions are quite strong and the American people have too much sense to ever fall for the socialist fantasy.

  3. Will the Tea Party last? I think not, because the big money behind the Tea Party is extreme Libertarian. This means no social security, no OSHA, no business regulations, and no minimum wage. Joe Six-pack and Jacksonian Americans are not libertarians. As a Jacksonian myself, and as you have pointed out, we are more of a hand up, not a hand out kind of people. At some point, this will come to a head in the movement. It is also the reason why I am not a member of the Tea Party.