Masters and Children
Elite understanding of the Tea Party movement is a great deal like elite understanding of political movements throughout American history. This doesn't mean that the Tea Party itself is comparable to those other movements. But it does mean that the perception of the tenured and gerrymandered class (and their co-religionists in a consistently mediocre news media) regarding the mass protest of ordinary people continues to be unmistakably lazy, condescending, and reductive.
Writing in the 1930s and 1940s, the South Carolina journalist W.J. Cash lamented the terrible effects of elite northern influence on the mind of the South. Powerful men had destroyed white and black minds alike, planting terrible seeds that grew ugly fruit. The legacies of Reconstruction devastated a place where there had once been a shared interest and natural affinity between slaves and masters.
"But mark now how the Yankee was heaping up the odds," Cash wrote."In his manipulation of the unfortunate black man he was of course generating a terrible new hatred for him. Worse, he was inevitably extending this hate to the quarter where there had been no hate before: to the master class."
This hatred, Cash warned, had predictably led to a white backlash, though whites knew in their hearts that"the Negro was in fact a mere passive instrument, no more to be blamed than the cudgel in the hand of a bully."
This notion of a whole group of human beings as a passive instrument was a staple of Reconstruction literature from William Archibald Dunning to Margaret Mitchell: Thaddeus Stevens just ruined the Negroes. Why'd he have to go and put those ideas in their heads? They used to enjoy their social and economic place -- what happened?
Compare this paternalistic and willfully obtuse understanding of causation to the explanations of the Tea Party that have stacked up lately in the Huffington Post, the party organ of people who get to go to dinner at Sally Quinn's house (or wish they were on that particular list). In a brutally stupid blog post this week, James Zogby decries"those who preyed on discontent" after Barack Obama's election to the presidency:
"On the one hand, the established political leaders and TV personalities who fomented this mob-like behavior were no doubt pleased as they saw this anti-government movement grow and suit their anti-reform agenda. Then again, when their offspring acted out of control, they were able to disassociate themselves from the fruits of their labor with a wink and a"tsk, tsk".
Their offspring. The fruits of their labor. The Tea Party is formed of children who sprouted from the pages of a John Boehner speech. Paternalism isn't often this literal, but there it is.
See also this recent Huffington Post gem:"They did this. All of them. The right-wing media machine created the monsters America is dealing with today." Tea Party participants are monsters, not people, and they were wholly created by a machine. It's so much easier to deal with political opponents who aren't even human anymore. They were extruded from a mechanism like paste.
Significantly, both black militancy and Tea Party protest have been depicted as anti-government movements that sought to create social disorder so they could weaken state institutions. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover warned of the" catalytic effect" of extremism in the destruction of law, order, and the capitalist system. In the 1960s, scholars testifying on racial unrest before congressional committees described the processes by which"subversive elements" took crowds under their control and turned them into dangerous mobs. ("The most vulnerable crowd, of course, is one which through the processes I have already mentioned has been preconditioned to react emotionally to certain slogans, phrases, and accusations.")
If you don't like this example, pick another one: Alexander Hamilton looking at John Fries and seeing the vanguard of Jacobinite terror; West Virginia Governor Ephraim Morgan looking at labor organizers in the coal mines in 1921 and seeing the hapless pawns of the Bolshevik menace; the governors of farmbelt states looking at Depression-era anti-foreclosure mobs and seeing incipient communist revolution driven by outside agitators. The paranoid center has deep roots.
Comfortable people look at popular protest and see a manipulated rabble that can't possibly understand the grievances they present, or the consequences of their actions. Dismissing mass movements with facile and reflexive distaste, they miss the chance to analyze and examine. They turn aside the responsibility of scholarship.
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Chris Bray - 4/4/2010
Both important points, and I'll cover both soon. Part two tonight...
Jonathan Dresner - 4/4/2010
Chris, I'm going to abstain from comment until you've gotten further, except to say this: the rhetorical argument you're building seem to assume a kind of atomized rational individualism as the only possible alternative to influence 'from above'; I know you're smarter than that, but you're going to have to address the question of social and media influence on both communities and individuals at some point.
Claire B. Potter - 4/4/2010
But we are also appalled by their gullibility.