Tea Party Populism and the man in the street

There is Nothing Wrong With Kansas:
A Review of The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite by DeMarquis.

While the title may sound like another Glenn Beck-style rant, this book is actually written from a fairly objective viewpoint. Reading between the lines, one gets the definite impression that author Lee Harris is a left-leaning writer trying to be as fair as possible to the conservative populist views he is discussing. Also, Harris isn’t concerned with the more ideological or doctrinaire attacks against the left, which is what most of us are most familiar with; instead, Harris wants to understand the more visceral “man or woman in the street” reaction against the “liberal elite”, the kind of people who make up the rank and file members of the tea-party movement, which makes for a more interesting and ultimately more important analysis.

Harris opens with a description of two events that he believes exemplifies a trend in contemporary politics: Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory over Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, and the disruptions that occurred at town-hall meetings across America in 2009. In both cases, the really interesting point is the level of paranoia and simplistic propaganda that conservative supporters were endorsing. We are all familiar with the litany of such conspiracies: “Death Panels”, “Birthers”, “Socialism” and the sudden increase in purchases of guns and ammunition that year.

Harris also personally knows people in this movement. He writes: “The easiest answer to why so much paranoia persisted after the election would be to conclude that people like those I had talked with were merely hopeless basket cases and crackpots… But these people are my friends, neighbors and acquaintances. They are not lunatics or nutcases. They don’t want to blow up anything. They are thoroughly decent and law abiding people, many of whom would happily go far out of their way to lend both friends and strangers a helping hand” (5).

That being the case, what is Harris’ explanation of why these people, these conservative stalwarts and tea-party members, are so extreme in some of their views? “But they all have one highly conspicuous quality in common. They don’t like other people telling them what to do… These are people that might be best dubbed “natural libertarians”. They may never have read a single piece of the classic libertarian literature. They may never have even heard of John Locke or John Stuart Mill, but they have instinctively adopted Thomas Paine’s maxim that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” To such people, there is nothing so odious or obnoxious than a government whose attitude is “Don’t worry, we know what is best for you”” (6).

This is one of the two main themes that Harris makes, the other being that these fears and anxieties are, historically speaking, and once the hyperbole has been stripped away, actually rather well founded. “Talk of death panels, for example, is sheer collective paranoia- and yet, it is a paranoia that must be seen in perspective. It is rooted in the average American’s healthy fear that concentrations of power will be used to rob them of control over their own lives and destinies… In fact, if the state is called upon to ration health care, then it will inevitably be forced to decide who gets care and who doesn’t… an impersonal mechanism that would operate without the need for real human beings to agonize over the death sentences that they pass down on real human beings standing in front of them” (7).

These arguments are important because of what they imply regarding how best to respond to such anxiety-fueled paranoia. Facts and logical arguments are unlikely to make much of a difference. “The Obama death panel is a myth- but it is a myth that expresses a genuine anxiety that decisions over our lives and deaths could one day end up being made for us and not by us. It is not enough to simply discredit the myth, which is relatively easy; it is necessary to address the underlying anxiety, which is much more difficult, since the source of this anxiety is the well founded fear of the little guy that those who wield power over him will not be inclined to use it for his benefit. Those who dismiss this anxiety as shrill or alarmist are also misguided. For history has repeatedly shown that the little guy is right to entertain these fears. Power breeds arrogance… Power must always be watched and feared, and when necessary, resisted” (7)

Harris argues that the most common form that this resistance takes in America is populist revolt. Thus, Harris sees this style of populism as both necessary and beneficial- because no one else is in a position to protect the liberty uniquely enjoyed by the relatively powerless in America than the mass populace itself. This in spite of the very well recognized dangers inherent in popular and populist-based movement and rebellions. “Most Americans will agree that our home grown populism has played an invaluable role in shaping our nation precisely because it has made ordinary men and women wary of allowing any single group to amass too much power over them. Yet all too frequently American populists have undermined the strength of their case by espousing an overly simplistic understanding of how the world works. They turn to populists and demagogues and charlatans… They may rebel for reasons that others find bizarre and incomprehensible, and their resistance can take on forms that others see as grossly disproportionate to the real threat to their freedom. Yet both this paranoia and this quickness to rebel have played an indispensable role in the creation of those rare and exceptional societies that provide liberty for all, not just the lucky few” (8). In other words, the paranoia is simply the unavoidable price we pay for a society of ordinary people who are willing to push back against the more powerful. For “liberal elitists” do exist (in the form of expert technocrats and their supporters) and they are a danger, just as dangerous in their own way as the populist demagogues who oppose them.

All this is presented in the introduction. The rest of the book is spent supporting these key arguments. Speaking now in my own voice, I can agree with most of what Harris is proposing here. I, too, and personally acquainted with the type of people he wants to understand. As a left-leaning member of the Occupy Movement, I can attest that one hasn’t really lived until one is suddenly and unexpectedly called out to defend your views in front of an audience of Michigan Militia members, over a camp-fire in the woods miles from any other people. Some of those militia members were friends of mine, others were strangers, some of them were thoughtful and well-meaning, others were uneducated racists, but all of them shared the basic mental attitudes that Harris describes here.

The problem with Harris analysis isn’t his account of the right-wing populist masses, which seems basically accurate, but he seems unaware of recent trends in political culture that have greatly undermined this role. Once, it may have been true that “natural libertarians” were the strongest bulwark against elitist power, but in the last thirty years or so this has changed. Now they are prey to a small group of highly professional and very skilled political propagandists using persuasion techniques based on the latest scientific research. The rich have a new weapon- marketing tactics that were developed and tested in the consumer sector, and now find application as political “attitude engineering.”

Not that such social engineering is solely an artifact of the right- the left is happy to make use of them when it appears convenient (it just doesn’t appear convenient as often). This actually comes out in Harris’ book in chapter two when he discusses Thaler and Sustein’s recent book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, which he describes as ‘soft paternalism’: “arguing… that the government should play the role of the savvy parent who is well versed in the psychological techniques of subtle persuasion… the government could nudge citizens into making better choices in their lifestyles… These methods, according to Thaler and Sunstein, could be carefully designed by psychologists to give citizens the illusion of free choice while subtly and subliminally directing them to make the “right” decision” (30). Harris uses this as an example of why populist fears of a “liberal elite” are not necessarily wholly unfounded. Given unrestricted control over federal policy, the kind of technical experts that Thaler and Sunstein represent might actually feel tempted to regulate peoples’ lives in ways they do not fully understand nor approve of.

“Nudge” is a recent popular work in what has become known as “behavioral economics”- the study of the biases and pre-dispositions in human decision making, esp. when the involve perceptions of risk. Thaler and Sustein really do recommend that the government utilize subtle and subliminal methods of persuasion to influence citizen decision making, but whether that constitutes an advance in policy implementation or a threat to individual liberty is likely going to be a matter of individual opinion. One example they use to illustrate what they mean is the City of Chicago, which has marked a dangerous section of road not only with the standard sign (“S-Curve ahead”) but also with a series of white parallel lines, which appear progressively closer together as the driver nears the dangerous bend. That’s ‘nudging.’ This appears to be an attempt to provide drivers with additional information, designed to take advantage of our perceptual biases. This seems relatively benign because the result of making a bad decision- losing ones life- are so undesirable it is hard to imagine someone objecting to the method used to warn drivers. Other examples give more pause. As one reviewer put it “Thaler and Sunstein adopt the deliberately oxymoronic label “libertarian paternalism” to describe their general approach. It’s libertarian in that people retain the right to make their own choices: they’re free to select the savings plan with the lowest projected return if that’s what they really want. But the govern¬ment — or an employer, or the person in charge of laying out the food in the cafeteria — is nonetheless nudging people in the direction that somebody thinks will make them better off” (http://www.nytimes.com/…).

It’s not hard to imagine such tactics being used less responsibly and more to protect the interest of the people who control the means of the nudging. Even policy makers dedicated to the public good could find excuses to use nudging in less acceptable ways- depending on the ideology involved, one could imagine the government ‘nudging’ people to do everything from investing their life savings in the stock market to informing on their neighbors. Libertarians, either of the ‘natural’ or ideological kind, have good reason to be suspicious of these methods and techniques.

Chapter three provides some historical background for this line of argument. One of the anxieties driving conservative populism is the idea that America is losing it’s exceptionalism. Different versions of American exceptionalism exist along a kind of spectrum, ranging from conceptions of “manifest destiny” to America as a democratic role model among nations. According to Harris “The populist revolt underway in today’s America, symbolized by, but not restricted to, the Tea Party movement, is based on the deeply held conviction that the United States is rapidly losing it’s exceptional status as the land of the free… what is being demanded is a restoration of those liberties our forefathers once enjoyed, but which are now under attack by a central government that has obtained a degree of power over our lives that our Founding Fathers never envisioned” (43). This is, at its root, basically a critique of the regulatory state. Starting with FDR and the newly named “Liberal Movement”, so the story is told, the Federal Government began to use policy as a means of taking care of people, solving social problems for them, while all the while passing more and more restrictions on individual freedoms. The policies of the Obama administration, such as the infamous “Obamacare,”  are perceived as just more of the same.

This is not wrong. Contemporary “liberals” are those who are content to sacrifice certain individual liberties so that more of us can be free from such ills as poverty, poor health, and prejudice. “Conservatives” today are those who are not so content, who feel that the price we have paid is too high. They harken back to the ‘yeoman farmer’ of Jefferson’s day, and not without some reason, given who they are. “Jefferson’s yeoman farmer still has spiritual descendents living in America… they don’t work for Big Business or Big Government or Big Universities. Instead they are individuals who own and operate small businesses, and are justified in thinking of themselves as their own boss… to the self-made man of today… the American tradition of rugged individualism is not a quaint myth- it is the realization of his dreams and aspirations” (46-47). It is this way of life, in the face of Big Government’s bailout of Businesses “too big to fail” in the wake of the banking crisis, that the Tea Party and others are afraid is being lost. And of course it would go without saying that once lost in America, it would be lost for good, since no other country in the world exemplifies the value of the self-made man like America does.

The point is not whether this view of things is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’- the degree of historical revisionism involved here is obvious. The right-wing populist revolt is clearly much more a product of the feelings of ordinary people in response to traumatic social changes rather than driven by an ideology.

Should America strive to fulfill a unique role among the nations? It is undeniable that we are uniquely different, a difference that derives from our culture. Research clearly documents that in terms of it’s extreme individualism, and the very low degree to which Americans accept differences in power as legitimate, America is an outlier (http://geert-hofstede.com/…). America may very well be unique in the way that people here value and encourage individual initiative, innovation and self-expression. There are definite costs in the form of allowing people to languish who cannot support themselves, and a tolerance for discrimination based on group membership, and a spirit of competition that can seem ruthless and even corrupting, but by and large, Americans are true to their belief that individuals should be allowed to take advantage of what opportunities they can.

This is an important point as it highlights the difference between an ‘entreprenurial’ approach toward solving problems versus a more systematic ‘scientific’ one. America appears to operate according to a mass ‘trial and error’ approach- a willingness to experiment, and then to reward whatever seems to work. This approach relies upon, and produces, a wide diversity of ideas, a large ‘solution pool’ which can then be tapped into by ordinary people who communicate results to each other but otherwise work independently. It sets an ‘organic growth’ approach to social progress, rather than a reliance on centralized planning based on research or specialized expertise. And it can be argued that for certain kinds of problems, one’s that do not necessarily have one objective correct answer but are more creative in nature, this type of ‘random walk through the solution space’ represents the most effective approach. America seems to uniquely value this kind of social strategy. And that is what today’s populists are trying to preserve.

They just happen to be ornery about it. They tend to look for evidence that confirms their presumption that someone is trying to oppress them, and they over-react to the slightest hint of oppression, but the underlying motivation in not misguided. It is very important to preserve this conservative American tradition of ‘ornery independence’ because it acts as a ‘countervailing force’ to large institutions that might otherwise capture national policy and use it against the interests of less powerful. And if these people are currently being manipulated by professional ‘attitude engineers’ then the most effective response on the part of our society as a whole, and for those of us who lean left, is to encourage and strengthen their propensity for resistance, rather than attack them for it, or try to undermine it.

Someone should step up and explain to everyone what the real threat to individual liberty really is: concentrations of wealth and political connections that are currently engaged in a struggle to capture elections and direct policy toward the interests of a tiny segment of our society. Someone has been lying to all of us- and it is in confronting those lies that we find the common ground between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, between the extreme left and the extreme right- the interests of all populists everywhere. It’s not hard to demonstrate this claim: why does so much government subsidy go to large agri-businesses and not family farmers? Why did so much of the TARP funds go to big banks and not home owners? Why did so much of the benefits of Obama’s health care package go to the pharmaceutical industry and not, say, senior citizens? It’s almost trivially easy to show that it wasn’t the anarchist left that supported any of that. And it certainly wasn’t the libertarian right. So who?

It’s in the seeking for an answer to that question that the way forward for America will be found.



About grdflynn@yahoo.com

Journalist - Newsweek, Gothamist, City Limits, The Villager, etc. Tracking the rise of nationalist movements in Europe since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. Twitter: https://twitter.com/gerdflynn?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor
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