William Voegeli: The Meaning of the Tea Party





[William Voegeli is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom in the Modern World, and a contributing editor for the Claremont Review of Books. He is the author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books). His reviews and essays have appeared in City Journal, First Things, In Character, the Los Angeles Times, National Review, and The New Criterion.]

One point about the tea party movement is not in dispute: it was triggered on the morning of February 19, 2009, by Rick Santelli, a correspondent for CNBC. Speaking from the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, Santelli responded to a question from his studio anchors by denouncing a proposed $75 billion government program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. As the traders around him began to look up from their computers to listen, then to applaud and cheer, Santelli turned to them and asked, "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage who has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" Getting more worked up, Santelli said, "We're thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July. All of you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing it."...

What are the questions about the Tea Party movement that remain open for debate? Those would include...everything else. Depending on which analyst you favor, the movement is either "part of a very big wave" or already starting to burn itself out. The Tea Party activists are either reviving the nation's founding principles, or the anti-intellectualism, extremism, and paranoia said to be constantly latent in American politics. Its members are either the direct descendants of the Ross Perot voters from the 1992 presidential campaign, or have little in common with them. It is a spontaneous grassroots phenomenon, or an example of political "Astroturf." It poses grave dangers for the Republican Party, or is the GOP's salvation. The Tea Party movement has lost interest in the culture wars and social issues that energized conservative politics for the past 45 years, or is composed of people who haven't yielded an inch on those questions....

It's not too early to venture some tentative explanations, however. The Tea Party movement caught fire one month after Barack Obama's inauguration. It is, in part, a reaction to the Obama presidential campaign and its accompanying cult of personality. It is also a reaction to the Obama Administration's effort to keep the financial crisis from going to waste by using it to enact an agenda of "shock and awe statism," to borrow a phrase from Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana.

There are clear signs, though, that the Tea Party movement cannot be summed up by its relation to the dawning of the Age of Obama. It emerged at the culmination of the long project to supplant a ruling class based on social position and wealth with one based on brains. The new meritocrats who direct our government, economy, and national discourse are being disparaged at Tea Party meetings and blogs by the people whom they govern. This is an important, unexpected development—the democratic repudiation of the consequences that have followed from the successful effort to democratize entrée to the nation's highest circles of power....

A moment's reflection, however, will show that any such promise is unachievable. The moment you begin to televise negotiations over a major piece of legislation, the proceedings you televise cease to be negotiations. They become, instead, campaign speeches and posturing (as we saw in February 2010 during the president's health care summit with congressional leaders). The real negotiations move to a room without TV cameras and microphones....

At a similar, I'm-not-like-all-the-others moment in his courtship of the electorate, Obama made a point in his Denver acceptance speech of denouncing political opponents who "claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes." The Democratic nominee, of course, made another campaign commitment on that subject, as categorically and frequently as he promised to televise health care negotiations. "I can make a firm pledge," candidate Obama said two months before the election. "Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes." All of 15 months later, President Obama told a BusinessWeek interviewer that he would have to be "agnostic" on the question of raising taxes on families making less than $250,000 per year if his new commission on reducing the deficit would have any chance to make a difference....

Obamanauts in politics and the press would, of course, dispute this characterization. In the time-honored tradition of Democratic rhetoric, new programs never merely cover their costs, but are lauded because they will "pay for themselves many times over." Thus, President Obama insisted that he will not sign a health bill that adds "even one dime to our deficit over the next decade," after which it "must also slow the growth of health care costs, while improving care, in the long run." Indeed, not only can we afford to extend health protection to tens of millions of uninsured people, we cannot afford not to. In a speech to Congress on February 24, 2009 the president said that securing "quality, affordable health care for every American" was "a step we must take if we hope to bring down our deficit in the years to come" (emphasis added).

The Tea Party movement did not ignite that quickly—we may safely assume that President Obama's nationally televised address had other purposes than putting out the fires Rick Santelli had lit five days earlier. There's an important connection, however, between the "Who says you can't have it all?" logic employed by the Obama Administration to sell its health care initiatives, and the swift, categorical repudiation of his agenda by the Tea Party movement. Obama's difficult first year in office suggests the limits to what soaring rhetoric can accomplish once the campaigning is over, and even its drawbacks for selling policies and building coalitions. No matter how lucidly he phrases the point, or confidently he delivers the arguments, the president has not been able to talk citizens out of their skepticism about policy proposals that appear, to the untrained eye, beset with contradictions. In August 2009 Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in Time that the "fatal flaw of Obamacare" was that the people simply did not understand the president's argument that our health care system was an "untenable" disaster that was "bankrupting" our families, businesses, and government, at the same time he was promising that his sweeping changes would permit every American who is "happy with your plan and your doctor" to continue those health care arrangements indefinitely....

The Tea Party scorn for the president's promises that all his transformative plans won't hurt a bit is about Obama, but also about something bigger. The voters are particularly unreceptive to presidential promises that sound too good to be true, because they have lived to regret listening to other such promises. Those promises were made by leaders of the new meritocracy, the one described by Brooks, in his comic sociology mode, as the "valedictocracy," populated by "Achievatrons" who "got double 800s on their SATs."

Without judging the validity of its complaint, Brooks asserts that the Tea Party movement is made up of people who "are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form a self-serving oligarchy—with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation."

We can be less impartial. The sociological but not very comic reality is that Brooks's Achievatrons wound up being distrusted by millions of their countrymen the old-fashioned way—they earned it. Our new meritocratic masters have been more conspicuously smart than wise. They know a lot, but don't know what they don't know. Their self-regard as the modern Americans who are the "natural aristocrats" Jefferson looked for has left them with an exaggerated sense of their own noblesse, and a deficient awareness of their corresponding oblige. Their expectation that the rest of us will be deferential to their expertise, like citizens of European nations that are social but not especially political democracies, has triggered the Tea Party backlash, and the resurgence of the "Don't Tread on Me" spirit.

As a result, eloquent promises about how government can be expanded to the benefit of all while taxes are increased only for a very few, and how ingenious new programs can make health care simultaneously more extensive and less expensive, are setting off alarms. These assurances—that when common sense tells us that something isn't possible while expert analysis tells us that it is, our common sense is the thing that needs to be adjusted—sound ominously familiar. Wasn't it just the other day that brainiacs with MBAs were telling us that, no, it was not dangerous for people with modest incomes to purchase expensive houses with zero-down, adjustable-rate mortgages? Since we didn't go to Wharton and weren't conversant with the esoteric innovations in financial derivatives and securitization that had taken the risk out of taking risks, we didn't know enough to set aside our unfounded fears that all this highly leveraged borrowing would end badly.

Sometimes the valedictocracy's repudiation of common sense works in the opposite direction: expert analysis shows how things that sound attainable to most people, largely because they were attained routinely for many years, are in reality extraordinarily difficult. Any nation worthy of the name has to defend its territorial integrity, for instance. Doing so includes securing its borders and making clear, consequential distinctions between what will be expected from and by its residents based on whether they are citizens, legal aliens, or illegal aliens. For most of its history, America was not baffled or overwhelmed by the imperative to discharge these fundamental responsibilities. In recent decades, however, the bright lines on the map and in the law that distinguish our country and people from others have become mysteriously blurry and unenforceable.

One effect of this newfound incompetency is that those who are least like the Achievatrons—people who didn't go to college or even finish high school—are forced to compete in the domestic as well as the global labor market against foreign workers. One cause of it is that Achievatrons know the names of Tuscan villages that haven't been discovered by tourists but don't know the name of a single person who really needs a job at a meat-packing plant or cleaning hotel rooms. And because they don't know any such Americans they find it easy to conclude that there are no such Americans, leaving us no choice but to import the labor we need for those tasks. The resulting analytical framework renders illegal immigration a victimless crime, since the only jobs immigrants take are ones for which no American citizen can be hired. Paul Krugman, of all people, has disparaged this consensus, labeling as "intellectually dishonest" the canard that "immigrants do ‘jobs that Americans will not do.'" To the contrary, "The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants."...

The Tea Party movement's grievance against the Eternal Valedictorians cannot be reduced to the lingering grudges of those who took a remedial class here and there against those who enrolled in Advanced Placement Everything. Obama got it basically right in San Francisco before he got it gruesomely wrong. A leadership class that actually improved ordinary Americans' security and opportunities would be forgiven condescension worse than Obama's. It's when the people running the country are both disrespectful and ineffectual that folks get angry.

That anger will culminate in the replacement of America's "entire political establishment," Herbert Meyer, an intelligence official in the Reagan Administration, recently argued on the conservative website, American Thinker. The Tea Party movement, driven by the belief "that character is more important than personality, that education isn't the same thing as judgment, and that expertise without common sense is dangerous," will spearhead the replacement of the existing governing cohort with "a wholly new establishment," wrote Meyer....


If this is indeed what the Tea Party movement achieves, or even attempts, it will count as one audacious switcheroo, especially since it's not clear that America has a relief establishment warming up in the bullpen. The country's last establishment swap saw the replacement of what the journalist Nicholas Lemann called "the Episcopacy" with the meritocracy. It was, importantly, a revolution from above. "From the 1880s to the 1960s," in David Frum's useful summary, "the American governing elite was drawn from the distinguished families of New England and New York, promoted by friendships and family connections to the high offices of the land." The Episcopacy had a strong sense of its social obligations, which culminated in the realization that its aristocratic position in a democratic nation was anomalous and ultimately untenable. As recounted by Lemann in The Big Test (1999) and Geoffrey Kabaservice in The Guardians (2004), the Episcopacy's final public service was to commit mass-suicide. It intentionally transformed famous colleges from finishing schools for gentlemen into institutions that vetted bright, talented kids from throughout the social order, then equipped them with the training and, equally important, the self-assurance necessary to handle the country's highest responsibilities. As a result, writes Frum, today's "governing class is a meritocratic elite. For most members of this elite, the decisive event in their lives was the arrival in the mail of an acceptance packet from a great university."

If the Tea Party movement wants a new establishment to replace the Achievatrons, it's going to find that the current establishment, unlike the Episcopacy, is not the least bit conflicted about its right to run the country. As the late Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites (1995), "Meritocracy is a parody of democracy.... Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit." The Eternal Valedictorians don't suffer fools gladly, and are quick to conclude that anyone who disagrees with them is a fool. Questions about their judgments are challenges to their intelligence and expertise, which, in turn, form the entire basis for their vast self-regard and the privileged, powerful lives they lead....

The Tea Party movement, thus understood, has a natural affinity with, if you'll permit a parochial observation, the Claremont Institute, which antedates the movement by 30 years, and was created to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. This orientation means the Tea Party movement has the potential to be a vessel for a conservatism committed to conserving political blessings that are unqualifiedly American. What's more, implicit in the project of the political restoration of a rightful authority is the identification and defeat of the ideas and practices that have wrongfully usurped those founding principles. To this end, scholars such as Ronald J. Pestritto and Matthew Spalding, both Claremont Institute fellows, have painstakingly shown how 19th-century progressivism made 20th- and 21st-century liberalism both possible and dangerous.

The Tea Party movement has before it, then, a principled and intellectually coherent project. A visible destination can do very much to help a political movement navigate the treacherous ground before it—but only so much. Despite liberalism's contradictions and deceptions, "You've got a problem? We've got a program!" remains politically seductive. Barry Goldwater's alternative, "You've got a problem? We've got a philosophy!" still looks, however, like the phrase to launch a thousand concession speeches. A conservative candidate who recently got to give a victory speech was Bob McDonnell, the Republican elected governor of Virginia in November 2009. The key, as one party strategist explained to Ramesh Ponnuru, was that McDonnell was able to "finish the sentence" by presenting a "very vigorous policy agenda." So, "Instead of just saying that we have to keep taxes and spending low, and thus pleasing conservatives...McDonnell explained how these policies would create jobs and ‘plug the hole in Richmond.'"...

The Tea Party movement, thus understood, has a natural affinity with, if you'll permit a parochial observation, the Claremont Institute, which antedates the movement by 30 years, and was created to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. This orientation means the Tea Party movement has the potential to be a vessel for a conservatism committed to conserving political blessings that are unqualifiedly American. What's more, implicit in the project of the political restoration of a rightful authority is the identification and defeat of the ideas and practices that have wrongfully usurped those founding principles. To this end, scholars such as Ronald J. Pestritto and Matthew Spalding, both Claremont Institute fellows, have painstakingly shown how 19th-century progressivism made 20th- and 21st-century liberalism both possible and dangerous.

The Tea Party movement has before it, then, a principled and intellectually coherent project. A visible destination can do very much to help a political movement navigate the treacherous ground before it—but only so much. Despite liberalism's contradictions and deceptions, "You've got a problem? We've got a program!" remains politically seductive. Barry Goldwater's alternative, "You've got a problem? We've got a philosophy!" still looks, however, like the phrase to launch a thousand concession speeches. A conservative candidate who recently got to give a victory speech was Bob McDonnell, the Republican elected governor of Virginia in November 2009. The key, as one party strategist explained to Ramesh Ponnuru, was that McDonnell was able to "finish the sentence" by presenting a "very vigorous policy agenda." So, "Instead of just saying that we have to keep taxes and spending low, and thus pleasing conservatives...McDonnell explained how these policies would create jobs and ‘plug the hole in Richmond.'"

The Tea Party mission can be described in another way. What's at stake in the war conservatives have declared on Obamacare is not only 18% of our economy, but 100% of our polity. If the anger over what the Democrats enacted, and the way they passed it, is replaced by acquiescence, America will have taken a big step toward having not only policies but political processes that are indistinguishable from Europe's. If the people who brought you Obamacare are not rebuked in the elections of 2010 and 2012, they, emboldened, will pursue further social transformations, regardless of popular opposition. Our ruling elites will eagerly adopt their European counterparts' posture toward the people: You are wrong. We know better. We will do this, and you will like it. To permit Obamacare to stand is to permit such an assertion to go unchallenged, and guarantee that it will become routine. By their passivity, the people will be complicit in their own disempowerment. As Frederick Douglass said in 1857, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them."



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