Lee Harris: The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals





[Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). His previous books include The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West (Basic, 2007) and Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History (Free Press, 2004).]

Intellectual critics of the Tea Party movement most often attack it for its lack of ideas, especially new ideas — and these critics have a point. But the point they are making reveals as much about them as it does about the Tea Party. Behind the criticism lies the implicit assumption that comes quite naturally to American intellectuals: Namely, that a political movement ought be motivated by ideas and that a new political movement should provide new ideas. But the Tea Party movement is not about ideas. It is all about attitude, like the attitude expressed by the popular poster seen at all Tea Party rallies. Over the head of a hissing rattlesnake threatening to strike is inscribed the defiant slogan so popular among our revolutionary ancestors: “Don’t tread on me!” The old defiant motto is certainly not a new idea. In fact, it is not an idea at all. It is a warning....

A generation before Orwell devised the idea of Newspeak, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci had developed a concept that in many ways foreshadowed it, but with one major and considerable difference. Before Gramsci discovered Marx, he had been a student of languages. Gramsci was especially fascinated by what happened when two languages collided. Throughout European history, conquerors had routinely moved into new territories where the inhabitants spoke a different language. In some cases, such as the Normans in France, it was the conquerors who picked up the language of the conquered, but more frequently, it was the other way around. What explained this fact? Why did a conquered people so often abandon their own language in order to learn the language of their conquerors?

Gramsci argued that what led people to discard their native language was the greater prestige of the conqueror’s language. The idea of prestige, which had never played a role in classical Marxism, became the key to Gramsci’s most famous concept, cultural hegemony....

For Orwell the basis of cultural hegemony was terror. For Gramsci, on the other hand, it was prestige. Cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, did not have to be imposed on the people through threats and intimidation. It didn’t need to be imposed at all. Conquered subjects sought to emulate the prestigious language of their conquerors, while they simultaneously came to look down on their own native tongue as gross, defective, and inferior. In modern liberal societies the same principle has been at work, but with different players. As education became the ticket to worldly success, it naturally became a source of prestige. Prestige no longer came from conquest by arms, but from earning a Ph.D. In modern secular societies, the eminence of the intellectual elite allowed it to unilaterally allocate prestige to select ideas, thinkers, and institutions. Objects imbued with the magical glow of prestige did not need to be pushed on people — on the contrary, people eagerly vied with each other to obtain these objects, often at great personal sacrifice. That is why prestigious institutions, such as major universities, well-endowed foundations, and posh clubs invariably have far more candidates for admission than can possibly be accommodated — a selectivity that makes them even more desirable and prestigious. That is the beauty of prestige: It doesn’t need to lift a finger. It can just sit back and relax, confident that people will flock to its feet, begging for the crumbs from its luxuriant table....

For better or for worse, the profound cultural changes in American life during the past half century are testament to the enormous influence exercised by our cultural guardians. Ideas, customs, and traditions that no longer find favor in the eyes of the cultural elite have been stigmatized as out-of-date and old-fashioned, while an array of progressive policies have received the imprimatur of elite prestige. In fact, about the only segment of the population that has remained resistant to these progressive policies are the crowds that assemble at Tea Party rallies, holding up their handmade posters. It is the Tea Partiers’ indifference to the whole idea of intellectual respectability that renders them immune to the prestige pressure that molds and shapes the ideas and opinions of those who do care about being intellectually respectable. To put it another way, the Tea Partiers can escape the otherwise all-pervasive influence of our cultural elite because they are the people who Gramsci called marginalized outsiders.

When referring to marginalized outsiders, Gramsci had in mind the kind of people who inhabited his native island of Sardinia. Tough and hardy, ferociously independent, stubborn in their ways, and pugnaciously proud of their own cultural identity, Sardinians embodied the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude and were prepared to back it up with action, often quite violent action. Italians born on the mainland looked down on the islanders, regarding them as crude and uncouth, which by sophisticated standards they certainly were. They also spoke a dialect of Italian that was considered barbarous by those who spoke the preferred Tuscan dialect of the educated and cultured classes. Yet Gramsci, far from feeling shame about his native Sardinia, remained intensely proud of it all his life. Indeed, it was thanks to his native Sardinia that Gramsci came to recognize that snobbery is a powerful form of oppression. Those who establish a monopoly of prestige are no more willing to share their cosa nostra with others than those who have created commercial monopolies.

The only defense that the marginalized outsider has against this onslaught is to not give a damn. And the fact that the Tea Party movement does not give a damn about the current standards of intellectual respectability makes it problematic for the intellectual, who cannot take the same attitude. But it is also the characteristic that justifies the Tea Party’s claim to be revolutionary. To be sure, this is not the revolution envisioned by Marx, in which the working class overthrows the capitalist class. It is rather the revolt of common sense against privileged opinion makers, and, by its very nature, it can only be carried out by men and women who are not constrained by the standards of intellectual respectability current in polite company. Again, it is precisely their status as marginalized outsiders that allows them to defy the monopoly of prestige possessed by the cultural insiders. This fact may put them beyond the pale as far as the conservative intellectuals are concerned, but it is precisely what makes them a force capable of resisting the liberal elite’s efforts to achieve cultural hegemony — a resistance that conservative intellectuals had hoped to mount but which they have not mounted, which explains why the Tea Party movement has so little use for them as a whole. As the Tea Partiers see it, what is most needed right now are not new ideas — we have already had far too many of those. What is needed is the revitalization of a very old attitude — the attitude shared by all people who have been able to maintain their liberty and independence against those who would take it away from them: “We do not need an elite to govern us. We can govern ourselves.”...

The lesson of history is stark and simple. People who are easy to govern lose their freedom. People who are difficult to govern retain theirs. What makes the difference is not an ideology, but an attitude. Those people who embody the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude have kept their liberties simply because they are prepared to stand up against those who threaten to tread on them. To the pragmatist, it makes little difference what ideas free people use to justify and rationalize their rebellious attitude. The most important thing is simply to preserve this attitude among a sufficiently large number of people to make it a genuine deterrent against the power hungry. If the Tea Party can succeed in this all-important mission, then the pragmatist can forgive the movement for a host of silly ideas and absurd policy suggestions, because he knows what is really at stake. Once the “Don’t tread on me!” attitude has vanished from a people, it never returns. It is lost and gone forever — along with the liberty and freedom for which, ultimately, it is the only effective defense.


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