Monday, May 10, 2010

Political Incoherence

Been doing some remarkable reading--I strongly advise you check out Mark Lilla's recent New Yorker piece on the Tea Party movement. He has an amazing eye and ear for history, and the way in which he contextualizes the Tea Party movement as an extension of his 1998 article "A Tale of Two Reactions" is fascinating. Essentially, the argument is that the New Left of the 1960's shares with the Reagan democrats (and now, the confounding subjects of the Tea Party who want to defend their individual selves from governmental tyranny) a strong belief in the power of individuality to echo and exercise force for good.

Why this argument seems so precisely correct to me is that it explains how something like the Tea Party is capable not just of appearing in public but also maintaining its own internal coherence in the face of a rather sizeable amount of American history that contravenes a lot of the reductios circulated by the Tea Party in the name of limited government. I'm thinking particularly of the small rightist cottage industry set up around writing books about why the New Deal was bad, or the way a creeping form of originalism is beginning to do more than just legal work, rewriting the national imaginary in a way to prohibit anything like governmental involvement in social issues (ignoring momentarily the ways in which this government is supposed to intervene temporarily to return the country to how it was, in a form of regulation and intervention whose temporary acceptability is indexed by reaching into our past for a fictive shared fantasy of purity and natural greatness).

FDR was one of our greatest presidents. Nixon coopted George Wallace's voters and then enacted what amounted to progressive, liberal policy initiatives at the federal level. Dwight Eisenhower warned about the "military industrial complex". It's not all peachy keen for liberals--we're saddled with Woodrow Wilson, JFK (it seems like he was really bad, if attractive), and Clinton dispirited the former elements of the New Left as much as he pleased centrists. But as Frederic Jameson said, "history is what hurts". History, especially, must hurt the Tea Partiers, tethered as they are too a historical signifier of America's refusal to bow to something like "authority"--nevermind that what defines that authority, and one what terms, is ineffably contestable in a way that can point to the incoherence of the Tea Party's politics. Since they are for less government, and so much less of it that it would render an awful lot of our already existing political establishments, we need to account for how those arguments can appear. That, for now, can wait. But Lilla is right to point to something like a clash fostered by the contradictions of liberalism. More later.

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