The US Constitution unites the left and right in fundamental disagreement
By Jedediah Purdy
The Tea Party movement gets plenty of support from established right-wing financiers and media, but the mood that drives it is as real as it is sometimes bizarre. In 2010, nearly one-third of Republicans told pollsters they believed Barack Obama was a Muslim, and a quarter affirmed the astonishing thought that the President “might be the Anti-Christ”. Only about half of Republicans and a third of Tea Party supporters acknowledge the well-documented warming of the planet, and the numbers who accept the scientific consensus that humans are causing the warming are markedly lower. At last count, 13 states were considering laws like Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment forbidding courts to draw on sharia law—a virtually imaginary prospect that has nonetheless inspired real anxiety. In a patently unconstitutional gesture of populist defiance, a number of states have adopted laws defying the healthcare reform that Congress adopted in 2010. These are fragments of the new populism that has gripped the Republican Party, swept a micro-generation of right-wing true believers into Congress, and set the tone for the party’s presidential nomination process.
The conservative and libertarian Tea Party movement has thoroughly shaped this year’s Republican race. Climate-change denial, categorical refusal of new taxes, and accusations of socialism, or social democracy-style “entitlement society”, against the Democrats underlie the Republican candidates’ campaigning. In effect, Tea Party ideology has a veto on the Republican primary, though the movement may well end up jilted once the general election begins.
The movement was entering its third year of political life when the moribund, half-forgotten left struck back with its own populist surge, the Occupy movement. This started in Manhattan’s Liberty Plaza Park but spiralled into a claimed 600 occupations in the US alone, with many more abroad. In October 2011, a month after the Occupy Wall Street gathering started, 42 per cent of Americans said they supported the goals of the motley crowds camping in parks, post-office plazas, town and campus greens, and elsewhere. The question was ill-posed, though understandably so. Occupy produced no official goals—an artefact of its anarchist-inspired structure—but the banners were articulate: corporations, money in politics, and financial capitalism were the enemy, more democracy and equality the answers. By mid-November when the New York City police cleared out the Liberty Plaza Park encampment, public support had fallen to about one third, hurt by television coverage of a few violent clashes in which police were mainly the aggressors.
What Occupy will mean for the Democrats is much less clear than what the Tea Party has meant for the Republicans. It is not clear that Occupy sympathisers will be a voting force in Democratic primaries. Nonetheless, Occupy has opened a floodgate of open talk about inequality and the corrupting effect of private wealth on democracy, issues that until recently were in bad odour on America’s centre-left (which is about all the left the US has). It is widely thought that President Obama’s new emphasis on economic fairness at the beginning of his re-election campaign owes something to the popular resonance of Occupy. The movement also inspired literally millions of conversations of about its themes, all over the country, which will redound to elections in ways that are impossible to predict.
THROUGHOUT the high-water period of Occupy, when two-fifths of Americans expressed support for its goals, the same polls showed public support for the goals of the Tea Party at about 40 per cent. That adds up to 75 or 80 per cent of Americans notionally supporting movements of radical dissent. That is arresting, but makes sense considering that, for the last year, between two-thirds and three-quarters of Americans have believed that the country is on the wrong track. Evidently the wrong-track supermajority doesn’t expect much help from the mainstream of either party.
What, if anything, do these two populisms have to do with each other? Naturally, both take energy from the continuing recession, which has thrown tens of millions into indefinite pessimism: long-term unemployment, unpayable debt, unsellable houses, and unusable degrees. But economic discontent can take many political forms or none at all. Is there something in the American grain that accounts for these quite disparate movements?
The Tea Party is only superficially a new event. In many ways it continues what the historian Richard Hofstadter called in 1964 “the paranoid style in American politics.” Hofstadter’s use of paranoid was not, of course, clinical, but it did describe a kind of political thinking that eerily echoed diagnosable paranoia. The picture of the world was basically conspiratorial: powerful, obscure, and hostile forces were at work, driving everything from war making to economic policy, and only the paranoid perspective let a person see them clearly. It was also Manichean: the hostile forces were not just humanly different or intelligibly opposed, but implacably destructive, demanding total victory or defeat. No compromise was possible. In such a worldview, ordinary rationality took quite a beating, and paranoid movements blithely entertained inconsistent beliefs and breathtakingly implausible claims about the secretive, monstrous powers of their enemies. When Hofstadter wrote, the main nemesis of the paranoid was global communism, imagined to have infiltrated everything from the State Department and the White House to local school boards. Previously it had been Catholics and before that Freemasons, in a long history of foreign-backed enemies within threatening the patrimony of trueborn Americans.
The paranoid style is longstanding and international, but the Tea Party is more specifically descended from the New Right movement that drew Hofstadter to his topic. Inspired by the anticommunist adventures of Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy, unified around the 1964 presidential bid of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, and eventually triumphant in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, the New Right combined economic libertarianism, aggressive anticommunism and general militarism, and hostility to the federal government in favour of states’ rights to local self-governance. A distinctly modern movement, the New Right never embraced the anti-Catholicism or racism of its predecessors, though both the support for states’ rights and the attack on welfare policies had unmistakable racial meaning in decades when Washington and the federal courts were dismantling Southern segregation and public-support policies were stamped as handouts to blacks.
The New Right’s most distinctive commitment was its general disdain for government as an inefficient, sapping force, enemy of initiative and self-reliance, redoubt of coddled bureaucrats and lurking tyrants manqué. This was a rejection of a consensus in the political class, between the triumph of the New Deal and Richard Nixon’s 1968 election, that in a complex, industrial economy, government was necessary, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, to preserve individualism. In the hands of the New Right, the archetypal American figure, the independent individual, was redeployed against government. Because the Tea Party seems to perfect this hostility, Mark Lilla has called it “the libertarian mob”.
At a town hall meeting on healthcare reform, as the Tea Party was turning into a challenge to President Obama’s ability to govern, a woman warned that Washington had better keep its “government hands off my Medicare”—Medicare being a federal program of public old-age insurance. This bizarre declaration has struck many as crystallising the Tea Party’s cocktail of resentment, entitlement, and wilful misunderstanding of the most basic institutions of public life.
These damning paradoxes are everywhere. The anti-sharia campaign, nominally meant to maintain secular values in law, would turn the government into an agent of religious intolerance in a way not seen for most of the last century. Climate-change denial is a caricature of scientific rationality: sceptics painstakingly assemble and invoke anomalies in studies, embarrassing phrases in stolen emails, and assertions from dissenting scientists, creating a papier-mache version of an empirical inquiry. Even more basically, the trademark assertion that the President is un-American—either in the invidious claim that he is Muslim or that he was born in Kenya and so is constitutionally ineligible for the presidency—turns around the real issue: Barack Obama being President makes Tea Party supporters wonder whether they are still American. That is, the presidency of a mixed-race man of multinational experience, cosmopolitan instincts, and an African-American cultural style (albeit a painstakingly edited and regulated one) distills the doubt that white, middle-American, mainly Christian and conservative types still form the heart of the country.
The right to stand unchallenged at the centre of your own national community is a huge, if intangible, thing, and the clear threat of losing it has been an engine of New Right animus for decades. The hostility to government has to be understood in this light: it expresses not just a rational estimation that the state is less effective than mid-century Americans tended to believe, but also a perception that it has been taken away, that it now belongs to someone else. Old entitlements, like Medicare, belong to a partly imagined time when such programs were for “people like us,” but today “government hands” are suspiciously dark-hued and foreign-looking.
FROM what I could observe from a few days spent at Liberty Plaza Park, one of the most poignant qualities of Occupy was the evidence it gave of the devastated historical imagination of today’s American left. Although there are still outstanding autodidacts and odd, usually overtheorised pockets of radicalism, the contrast to Tea Party historiography could hardly be starker. The outlandish Glenn Beck-backed Beck University is only a highly visible outcrop of a whole ecosystem of books, stories, and theories, running at least back to the founding generation, that bolster right-wing populists in the belief that they are the real heirs of the true Americans. Many Occupiers, though, had little sense of what had gone before them, and little sense of who, beyond the late Howard Zinn, a longtime activist and author of A People’s History of the United States, could help them to learn. In a country whose active left has hardly existed for decades, where respectable democratic traditions such as socialism are invoked mainly as insults, and where university education is often just preparation for money-making, these radicals were marooned on desolate shores. That is not to say that they were incurious: in fact, many were keenly interested in teach-ins and the holdings of the free library. What they prominently lacked, though, was a compass, a starting point for devising a picture of the country in which their aspirations would figure centrally.
Nonetheless, in conversations with Occupy participants, one gets the sense that a traditional American faith persists in them: that the country, and especially the Constitution, rightly understood and cleansed of moneyed corruption, is on their side. Its truth is their program, however much it may have been distorted or fallen away from the righteous path. Although Occupy and the Tea Party do not have much in common, they share this conviction.
It is a thoroughly American idea. The common currency of American revolutionaries more than 200 years ago was that natural law and the inherited rights of Englishmen vindicated the rebelling colonists’ claims with the precision of a finely worded statute. This moral self-confidence drew derision from more sophisticated observers, particularly back in England. Samuel Johnson, the literary lion of the age, tried to mock the colonists’ naïve and self-serving claims out of existence. More charitable observers, such as Edmund Burke, who, among his many roles in the events of the time, was retained as a sort of lobbyist for the New York colonists, agreed that the Americans’ ideas were peculiar. Nonetheless, Burke insisted to his fellow members of parliament, this rather simple faith in personal freedom and legal principle was a compass-point of the colonists’ identity. It was who they were.
When early Americans adopted the US constitution, they set down the basis of their own civic faith. From debates over slavery and the New Deal to today’s disputes over abortion and the healthcare reform of 2010, the one shared idea among the contending sides has been that the constitution is theirs. On the one hand, being sure the constitution is on your side means the others don’t just disagree, but are wrong in some deeper and more categorical way. On the other, the constitutional tone of American debate implies that we are all trying to get at the same truth, interpreting the same phrases and principles. Paradoxically, it unites Americans in disagreement.
The American reflex to identify justice and morality with our highly imperfect founding document is so great that, when pollsters ask whether the constitution contains Karl Marx’s formula for distributive justice under communism, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” the communist phrase collects strong support. It does have the ring of a good principle.
What unites the grassroots of the Tea Party with the Occupy movement is this propensity to take certain American ideas completely seriously. For the Occupy movement, these ideas are as simple as democracy, fair economic opportunity (which implies, for example, funding good higher education), and some social protection against misfortune. They also include the ideas of nearly every religious community, social service volunteer group or, for that matter, family: human beings come first, and they are not to be sacrificed to vast institutions or bloodless abstractions. Oh, and greed is bad, sharing good. Armed by their non-cynical grip on these ordinary pieties, Occupiers find finance capitalism inhumane and the power of corporation and wealth in American politics monstrous. They are outraged that the Supreme Court has embraced the right of the rich (and everyone else) to spend unlimited money in campaigns, and of corporations to be treated as people when they exercise this right. When they hear Mitt Romney tell a voter, “Corporations are people, my friend,” they hear blasphemy against the American creed.
They have not learned the lesson Barack Obama quickly took to as soon as he anticipated having to govern: criticise the financiers and corporate heads, but then negotiate with them and find ways to show them respect. They, like you, wield concentrated power. They, like you, are involved in governing the country and the world. They are the people Tom Wolfe memorably called “the masters of the universe,” back when their wealth and power were far less than they now are. These are the lessons of realism, and the Occupiers are not realists. That is their point. For many of them, the American creed seems to mean that we should not have to be realists in this way. A good deal of American history, all the way back to the start, has been made by people who share this almost savant-like knack for taking announced ideals in complete seriousness.
The Tea Party is, candidly, more opaque to me. It is more diffuse and contains more diverse strands, including racial resentment and the continuing animus of culture wars over abortion and homosexuality. So far as it began in indignation over the 2008-09 bailout of the financial industry and the perception that government belonged to remote and indifferent interest groups, though, it seems to start where Occupy does: by taking seriously that our government is supposed to be transparent and answerable to us, and our economy is supposed to reward effort and ability, not political connections and the gigantism of the ‘too big to fail’.
Two-thirds of Americans and more than 80 per cent of the Republicans who make up most of the Tea Party, historically say they believe that where a person ends up in our economy is a result of how talented they are and how hard they work, not luck or impersonal social forces. This is a much higher share than in northern Europe, despite the fact that American social mobility is not actually higher than in those countries. In some ways, the reality of the American economy is itself an affront to these points of the American creed. But it is hard to imagine a more concentrated insult than the bipartisan judgment that a corrupt and inefficient financial industry, which had already fleeced plenty of innocents and made undeserving opportunists rich all the way down its food chain, had to be saved with public money. A realist understood why this had to be accepted. Someone who believed the American creed had powerful reasons not to accept it.
Richard Hofstadter closed his classic study, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, by contending that American radical populists do not understand how history does not happen. That is, they fail to grasp the complexity of the political, economic, and social worlds we live in, where no vast conspiracy can survive long and no simple principle can govern, where complexity overrides both concentrated wickedness and distilled idealism. This lack of realism makes them both ineffectual and dangerous.
It is worth adding a distinction between those who revolt against the complexity of the modern world as such and those who revolt against the specific kind of complexity we live with, including the power of the finance industry, the role of money in our politics, and our tendency to capitulate to greed as something necessary and even good. The first kind of revolt is probably doomed, though it may do a lot of harm before it goes down. The second may or may not be, and only people who take their creeds entirely seriously are likely to find out.
This is an article from the American Review issue "The right candidate" available as an iPad app. Download the app from the iTunes Store.