At the tea parties here in glamorous Queens we make sure we serve genuine Devonshire clotted cream with the scones and we keep our pinkies carefully extended while lifting the delicate porcelain cups to our lips, but a very different kind of Tea Party has my friends in the upscale media and policy worlds gravely concerned. To hear them talk, all the know-nothings, wackadoo birther wingnuts, IRS plane bombers, Christian fundamentalists out to turn the US into a theocracy, the flat earthers and the racists have somehow joined together into a force that is as politically formidable as it morally and intellectually contemptible. These Tea Partiers, I am frequently told, are ‘reactionaries’. They long for an older, safer and whiter America — a more orderly place where their old fashioned values were unchallenged, one in which ethnic minorities weren’t in their faces, gays weren’t demanding acceptance, and in general life looked more like “Ozzie and Harriet” and less like “South Park.”
I’m sure that description fits some of the people at some of the Tea Parties, but I think it misses the point. Yes, the Tea Partiers represent something very old in American life and in some ways they want a return to traditional American values, but the traditional American value that inspires them the most is the value of revolutionary change. The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.
That doesn’t mean that everything populists want works out. Andrew Jackson’s war against the Second Bank of the United States caused a depression in the short term and then left the country with a lousy, crash-prone financial system for the next eighty years. His immensely popular Indian Removal Act that sent the eastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma was no triumph of justice and compassion. And while a later generation of populists gave women the vote, it also brought in Prohibition.
But you don’t have to buy every line item (or even any line item) in the emerging Tea Party program to see the movement’s potential. Its 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. No idea has deeper roots in American history and culture and by global standards Americans have historically distrusted doctors, lawyers, bankers, preachers and professors: everybody who presumes that their special insider knowledge gives them a special right to decide what’s best for the rest of us and historically no political force has been stronger than the determination of ordinary Americans to flatten the social and political hierarchy.
The United States has rarely been in greater need of rapid transformation than we are now. The information revolution, the rapid development of the global economy, the shift of cultural and economic power from Europe toward Asia, the enormous wave of immigration that since the 1960′s has been remaking the body politic once again, the breakdown of the progressive or blue social model as industries and financial markets rise and fall with a velocity not seen in the last 100 years: these changes are taking place all around us, but our institutions and policies are very far from keeping up.
Today in the United States many of our core institutions are fundamentally out of sync with reality: they cost more than we can pay but they don’t do what we need. We have colleges our people cannot afford — and that often leave graduates without a basic grounding in either the history of our civilization or the practicalities of contemporary life. We have a health system that we cannot pay for and which fails to cover enough people. We have a public school system which has been failing too many of our children for far too long, costs unconscionably large amounts of money considering its poor performance — and vested interests block necessary reforms. Our federal, state and local governments are locked into an employment system and mode of organization that we cannot pay for — and that does not do the job. Our retirement system is a time bomb and all our political class can do is watch the fuse burn. We cannot regulate our financial industry effectively — and we cannot live without a financial system that remains innovative and dynamic. We are fighting a global conflict whose name we dare not speak against an enemy we do not know how to defeat and in a world that is more volatile and fluid than it has been since World War Two we are very far from any kind of national consensus (or even thoughtful conversation) about what our priorities and strategies should be.
Elites and experts who know the system believe that this massive logjam demands carefully crafted, expert-led interventions. Wise policy wonks must rejigger the health care system; the scientists and the policy specialists must redesign the national energy structure to deal with global warming. They dream of intricate, finely crafted reforms whose beauty can only be appreciated by a few.
Populists hate this; they want big and simple ideas. “The end of welfare as we know it” is what they wanted, not a careful re-adjustment of caseloads and policies. They think that the experts and the ‘policy communities’ that grow up around various complex issues aren’t just dispassionate servants of the public good. They think that scientists and wonks also have agendas and ambitions. Furthermore they suspect on good evidence that whatever delicately balanced, intricately designed policy proposals go into the legislative process, something much cruder and more, well, porcine will inevitably come out at the other end.
When the system seems stuck or dysfunctional and the pressure builds up for change, this is when populists rise up against elites and the suspicion of elites and government that seems to be part of America’s DNA comes to the fore. Often, these revolts amount to peaceful revolutions, transforming the American political and economic system. The revolutionary, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian and New Deal waves brought lasting change to our institutions and policies. The agrarian populists of the 1890s, the various movements of the 1960s and the movement behind Ronald Reagan were only slightly less effective.
My guess would be that the Tea Party movement is part of a very big wave. The link between a business driven agenda of modernization and reform and a populist agenda for empowerment, deregulation and attacks on privileged professions which are also costly economic bottlenecks is what, historically, has driven many of the populist movements that change the face of the country. That was true in the Jacksonian era and again during the progressive era and the New Deal when the desires of a left of center populism meshed with corporate needs for a stronger national framework of policy and regulation. It was true when the Republican Party pushed through the wave of changes and restructurings in the 1860s that ushered in the rise of the national industrial economy. It is equally true of the right of center populism that now seems to be taking shape, and potentially this movement could have the kind of impact on the country that the original Jacksonians did.
What this means for conventional politics is harder to predict. American populism is notoriously turbulent and unstable. As populist energy shifted from the pro-slavery Democrats in the twenty years before the Civil War, different movements like the Know-Nothings and the Free Soilers rose and fell until the new Republican Party harnessed northern and midwestern populist sentiment together with the nationalist vision of the rising industrial and railroad interests. (Abraham Lincoln wasn’t just the leader of a populist political revolt; he was a railroad corporate lawyer who combined populist politics with Henry Clay style nationalist economic ideas.) Crackpots and wackadoos often surface and achieve some temporary notoriety before the sorting out process of political exposure and debate winnows out the leaders from the loudmouths. At the moment the Tea Party seems to be more at the fermentation stage; the movement is still finding its feet and in terms of both program and personnel the new populists are still getting their act together.
The sorting out process seems to be happening fast, though. “Birthers” and “truthers” are being gently but firmly ushered to the door. For now at least, many Tea Partiers seem to want a populist coalition that focuses on economic and government reform while moving more slowly on social issues. Perhaps the movement is pulling itself together more quickly than past populist upsurges have done because the combination of higher education levels and better communications make today’s populists a little more ready for prime time than some of their predecessors. The ability to organize populist political movements quickly and effectively on a national scale may be one of the ways in which the United States has progressed in the last fifty years. The gap in education and skills between the ‘peasants’ and the elites is not as large as it used to be, and so when the ‘peasants’ are unhappy they can move much more quickly than they used to.
Be all that as it may, the path of populism in America in never as smooth or as pleasant as it appears in the movement’s early stages. Even when you come into politics with a few big ideas, you quickly get caught up in complications and entangling alliances. Paradoxically, populist movements usually rely on strong leaders — a Jefferson, a Jackson, a Lincoln, a Roosevelt or a Reagan — to hold them together and guide them through the complexities of success.
At this point no national political leader has emerged who seems capable of providing the leadership the new populists seek. Sarah Palin stirred their hearts, but her appeal does not seem to grow as her exposure increases. Certainly there is no one of Ronald Reagan’s stature on the horizon. More, since the public is not particularly happy at the moment with the results of electing sympathetic but untested young leaders (George W. Bush as well as the current President), experience and seasoning hold some appeal. That is a tough thing to find: a Washington-hating outsider who is also deeply knowledgeable about how government works. A military leader could fill the bill; generals aren’t career politicians but they know a thing or two about Washington life.
Does David Petraeus or Stanley McChrystal drink tea? Potentially, that could be the most important question in American politics.