The Tea Party Movement as a Libertarian Mob

With an update

There is an apocryphal story, truth be told it is more closely akin to a parable than a story, that tells much about the American character. As the story goes, an English nobleman is in America at some point in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, depending upon when you find the story, and he’s seeking directions or a room for the night or somesuch. He approaches an American farmer or rancher or backwoodsman and says, “My good man, where is your master.” The American solemnly stares and replies, “I reckon that sumbitch ain’t been born.”


Segments of the left are all a-Twitter, so to speak, today over an article in the New York Times Review of Books by someone named Mark Lilla titled Tea Party Jacobins. According to the left, this article explains the Tea Party movement and the electoral stomping the left anticipates taking this November. It has nothing to do with the Administration’s policies or its disdain for America rather:

A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

This is a very convenient position to take when you’re in Mr. Lilla’s position. The alternative is to admit that your entire world view is being repudiated by most of the country.

There is nothing new in this article, we’ve heard it all before. Let’s take a quick trip back to November 1994 via the indispensable Media Research Center:

“Some thoughts on those angry voters. Ask parents of any two-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming. It’s clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around. It’s the job of the parent to teach the child to control the anger and channel it in a positive way. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week….Parenting and governing don’t have to be dirty words: the nation can’t be run by an angry two-year-old.”
— ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings in his daily ABC Radio commentary, November 14.

“They are not voting Republican tonight, Mary. They are voting against a lot of unhappiness in their own lives….I think that it’s very easy for the Republicans to make the same mistake that the Democrats made in thinking that somehow we’ve been given this great mandate….They have got to be practical. They have got to compromise. They have got to meet the real needs of people. This is not an anti-government vote tonight.”
— U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Steven Roberts on CNBC’s Equal Time, election night.

“What this Contract [with America] says is you can have hot fudge sundae for every meal and still lose weight. It’s a fraud and there’s a whole lot of Republicans who already are starting to forget where they were September 27.”
— Wall Street Journal Executive Washington Editor Al Hunt on CNN’s Capital Gang, Oct. 1

“This is a rotten time to be black. Blacks are just going to take it in the chops….Their programs are going to get eviscerated and affirmative action is going to go right down the tubes…Politics have moved right because a lot of middle-class people thought they were taking my money and giving it to poor black people, and they didn’t like it and they want their money back.”
— Newsweek Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas on Inside Washington, November 12.

“The Republicans have resorted to demagoguery and transparent bribes (like lower taxes). The legislature they promise seems a blustery, selfish, self-righteous desert.”
— Newsweek Senior Editor Joe Klein, October 31 news story.


The real objection that Mr. Lilla, and presumably those vigorously pimping his diatribe, is simply this. The world is a very complex and dangerous place. You’re dumb and vulnerable. The only thing standing between you and a very ugly death, presumably by way of second-hand smoke, carbon dioxide, trans fats, and salt, is an elite force of platonic philosopher-kings, or based on what we’ve seen to date something more akin to a secular Sea Org.

Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.”

There you have it. In a nutshell.

This is not to say that Mr. Lilla is totally off base. He isn’t. But there is a reason I don’t blog about particle physics and string theory. It is the same reason that Mr. Lilla probably shouldn’t write about American culture.

The phenomenon Mr. Lilla describes is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with American history. Individualism, one of those quintessential American traits that has been widely pooh-poohed by academics like Mr. Lilla, was something earlier travelers remarked upon. This is true whether they were foreigners, like de Tocqueville, or from the Eastern Seaboard as chronicled by the improbably named Dr. Grady McWhiney. The essence of this is the Scots-Irish culture that, to a great extent, has contributed greatly to American culture. The idea that ‘I know best for me and for my family’ resonates with most of us. Most of us want to be treated like adults by our government which means sometimes leaving us alone and always means not cramming policies down our throats.


This is not new. This is not libertarian. This is American.

Mr. Lilla wonders:

Ever since the Seventies, social scientists have puzzled over the fact that, despite greater affluence and relative peace, Americans have far less trust in their government than they had up until the mid-Sixties. Just before the last election, only a tenth of Americans said that they were “satisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” a record low.

And goes on to hypothesize that perhaps the failure of the Great Society to actually alleviate rather than enhance poverty had something to do with it. I think he misses the obvious point. The Great Society, as expressed through both the Johnson Administration and the Warren Court, began an unprecedented expansion of government into the private lives of citizens and an equally unprecedented assault on traditional American values and culture.

One key factor that Mr. Lilla omits from his jeremiad is religion. Much of the behavior that induces vigorous bouts of backside scratching on the part of Mr. Lilla is nothing more complex that what happens when traditional American culture which values independence and autonomy is no longer moderated by community moral standards. Moral standards which had historically been derived from Christianity. Divorce, illegitimacy, drug abuse, and solemnized buggery are all easily explained when governors are removed from a system which defaults to individualism.

Whether Mr. Lilla is correct on his assertion that once the racial dog whistles have stopped sounding and the REALLY SMART people are back in charge, that the Tea Party Movement will go away remains to be seen:


But what happens after the class president is sworn in and the homecoming queen is crowned? The committees dissolve and normal private life resumes. And that, I suspect, is what will happen to the Tea Party organizations: after tasting a few symbolic victories they will likely dissolve. This is not only because, being ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind, they still have no identifiable leadership. It is because they have no constructive political agenda, though the right wing of the Republican Party would dearly love to attach its own to them. But the movement only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis, and to remind those in power that they are there for one thing only: to protect our divine right to do whatever we damn well please. This message will be delivered, and then the messengers will go home. Every man a Cincinnatus.

I think he misjudges the American character. I think that he’d better get used to the Tea Parties, just as the established political parties had better get used to them. I hope they remained allied with the Republican party but I know they will remain allied to conservatives within the Republican party. In that sense, in a worst case scenario I see them as spoilers. But they are a threat to everything the Democrat party stands for.

The current Tea Party movement has much more in common with the Perot phenomenon than anything else in recent memory. This time around, the populists have grown older and wiser. They aren’t searching for a man on horseback, or in the case of Perot a crazy uncle in the basement, but rather they are choosing individual candidates to change the way business is done in the Congress and in statehouses.


Technology, of course, is another variable Mr. Lilla seems intent on ignoring. In the past great causes were needed to bring people together in protest. When the immediate cause passed, and Mr. Lilla is clearly hoping that November will the end of that cause for the Tea Parties, the movement could not be sustained because of the difficulty in maintaining both intensity and contacts. That has changed. The Tea Parties are not only a political movement but the people are able to remain in contact via social media.

They may be Cincinnatus, but so long as Obama and his fellow socialists continue their assault upon America we will be at war. And Cincinnatus didn’t go home until the barbarians were not only defeated but publicly acknowledged their subjugation. And he came out of retirement at least twice.

If Mr. Lilla wants to know why we don’t listen to our masters, he needs to be reminded that that sumbitch ain’t been born.


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