The Face of Things to Come?

by A. Jay Adler on November 1, 2010
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Given tomorrow’s well-predicted outcome, let’s sharpen our focus, all extraneous considerations aside. Historian Sean Wilentz a couple of weeks ago gave us this essential consideration of Elmer Gantry Father Coughlin Lonesome Rhodes Glenn Beck’s extracted essence of John Birch Society and the lesser known Willard Skousen. Much to his own credit, Ron Radosh conservatively gave Wilentz his due for his expose of Beck’s historical ill rootedness. Radosh similarly praised historian Jill Lepore‘s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History.

What Lepore successfully does… is reveal the dangers of oversimplification by those who use history for their own political purposes. What she opposes is “historical fundamentalism,” and the false assumptions “about the relationship between the past and the present.” She calls this “the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ — are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read … the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired … that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, … are therefore incontrovertible.”

I made a similar point last week, when I wrote that

too intense a focus on unique national character is precisely what produces… the primitive, reactionary hagiography of the founders of a Glenn Beck and so many Tea Partiers.  Rather than esteem the birth of the American republic as a landmark advance in human ideals and political organization – one of which all Americans might be proud to be the inheritors, while they continue to uphold and advance those ideals – they diminish it. They diminish it, ironically, by excessively exalting the founding, and reifying its ideals, as an epic of civilizational origins, with the founders as mythic heroes whose descendents are naturally privileged with an exceptionalism they themselves may not have earned.

Beyond here offering Radosh his own due credit for thinking outside the pack, my greater point is to note how remarkably early it is in its time on stage – its first true electoral (hardly governing) achievements not yet notched into history – to have already identified the essential corruption of Tea Partyism as a political phenomenon. Radosh adds to this identification, first, through the main thrust of his post, in accepting Wilentz’s and Lepore’s fundamental critique. But he does it, too, unknowingly, in where he chooses to dissent from what he considers Wilentz’s greater liberal attack, not just on Tea Party historiography, but the Tea Party itself. (It is interesting to consider the likely worth of a political movement with so misguided, chauvinistic, and hagiographic a historiography.) In this he enlists Peter Berkowitz.

What Wilentz also does not get is addressed by Peter Berkowitz in his op-ed in the weekend Wall Street Journal, “Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement.” Berkowitz writes:

Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.

The Tea Party is, he notes, “one of the most spectacular grass-roots movements in American history,” notwithstanding some of the obvious faults of a few of their candidates and their tendency to adopt bad history when looking at the past. But their current movement derives from justified anger about the present. Berkowitz understands that “the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.” At the end of the day, the Tea Partiers are calling for conservative solutions that have been successfully applied in the past. As Berkowitz writes, “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.”

It is first, amusing, as always, to find the highly educated Berkowitz toiling in that tar pit of patronizing attack on the highly educated – the Tea Party’s own historically predictable assault on ill-defined “elites.” We can consider, in contrast, Berkowitz’s remarkably vacant defense, in 2003, of Leo Straus and neo-conservatism against charges of their elitism. Much in keeping with the quality of his argument then, he thinks it here meaningful argument to implicitly praise the Tea Party because it is “one of the most spectacular grass-roots movements in American history.” Shall we point out that Bolshevism was just about as legitimately a “grass roots” movement, and pretty spectacular at that, and that such was no relevant argument in support of the philosophy it represented or the regime it ushered in? Yes, we shall. Intrinsic, too, to this shallow critique of straw man elites is the implicit exalting of their opposites, in the automatic companion argument for the native wisdom of the common folk. Here the currently impassioned and righteous Right mirrors Marxist and postcolonial glorification of the lowly and oppressed by the very nature of their salted earth. “Bad history,” which Berkowitiz, too, acknowledges, along with glorification both of sainted forebears and the current common folk, is pretty much the outline of movement chauvinism. That the bad history alone gets excepted as not determinative in the end is itself remarkable. As for educated liberals lacking “a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government,” this fatuous claim received a fine spanking recently from Ron Chernow, biographer of Hamilton and Washington.

[A]ny movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history.

The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. Never has the country produced a more brilliantly argumentative, individualistic or opinionated group of politicians. Far from being a soft-spoken epoch of genteel sages, the founding period was noisy and clamorous, rife with vitriolic polemics and partisan backbiting. Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day.

A current representation of one side of those “fiercely fought debates” is what Berkowitiz delineates as the desires of Tea Partyers and the sympathizers “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.” But this is not what distinguishes the Tea Party. Such political goals are long-term and standard conservative policy positions. They are what Ronald Reagan ran on. Yes, liberals have a different take on those issues and strongly disagree with the conservative approach, but that is not the liberal problem with the Tea Party. That’s standard stuff. In this, it is a matter of what conservatives “don’t get” about liberal dislike for Tea Partyism. It is precisely the bad and manipulated history, precisely the foolish belief that they have some purchase on the constitution and the founding, precisely the ignorance and the manifest lack of qualification and quality, and the “obvious faults” of not a “few,” but many Tea Party candidates and representatives that has set liberals so vehemently against them. It is the Right that in this remains deaf to what liberals have so resoundingly been telling it.

I can offer no finer example of that of which I speak than the comments that followed Radosh’s post. A well-known and true conservative, he nonetheless found some fault with the current ideological regime. This is only the beginning of what he provoked in response. Click on the images to make them readable.

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