Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Meaning of Revolutionary-Era Garb

During the fevered times of 2009, the first explicitly populist conservative political movement, the Tea Party, took flight in America. While this blog has spent much time and effort thinking about the Tea Party, I have up until now avoided addressing one of the clearest signs that marked the Tea Party protests: the phenomena of people dressing up in clothing and styles from the times of the American Revolution. While this tendency has been much discussed (even even mocked on television shows like Parks & Recreation) I aim to ask a modest question in this post: what, if anything, did the move to dress in such a style mean?

I want to suggest that there is something ineffably non-controversial and intrinsically good about the moment of the American founding in our public imagination. This is of course no bold statement, at least in terms of one's assessment of the relation of America's mythic founding to the "mass public." While there might be disagreements from Charles Beard or race theorists (and these disagreements would have much merit), the mental work that the imagination of the revolution does for Americans today is meaningful. After all, what do desires and needs to return to the past mean? Kenneth Burke observes that such efforts are often attempts to "escape from a grossly mismanaged present." But what was so gross about early 2009?

There were three factors. 1) The American economy continued to struggle in the wake of the massive financial and housing crises that had begun in early 2008. Rather than being a trying but ultimately manageable political problem, the crisis gestured at an intimate crisis facing the American Dream: the possibility that the liberal promises of a correspondence between individual agency and socio-economic  standing might be exposed as a sham. America was thus confronted with a difficult if not impossible to resolve crisis: how to square the circle created by the promises of the dream that could no longer be realized. 2) The American mass public had been significantly reconfigured by the election of the first mixed race president (one who was overdetermined in public discourse as a black man) with the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Because media positioned Obama's race as mattering (but only insofar as it suggested its reaffirmation of a script of America's exceptionalism) the simultaneous promise AND terror associated with imagining a pure meritocracy was produced. 3) Obama's rhetoric had failed to tap into the well of anger and frustration associated with the TARP deals and other bailouts. The result was that while the public was looking for a public mirror in which to see itself (through the avatar of the presidency) what they got were lectures on responsibility.

For all these reasons, there were substantial questions about just who was responsible for the confusing and frustrating economic circumstances that remained well into 2009. Was it greedy financiers and bankers? Was it people who took mortgages beyond their means? Was it a creeping moral hazard induced by a society grown lazy and too privileged? Had the American Dream been spoiled by the government? Sabotaged from outside by communists?

Indeed, none of these answers alone is particularly satisfying. And debating about which is wrong or right is somewhat beside the point: the structure of the problem is so complex that the debate is realy about what palliative measures of public discourse might buy off the crisis instead of searching for that one single cause. In this sense, the move to return to the Revolutionary moment in America makes sense by virtue of its capacity to map a simple script onto a complex problem. Moreover, the script could tap into a deep seated and well cultivated suspicion of government that had dominated American political discourse starting in the late 60s. By turning the imagination into one of a tyrannous government positioned against a virtuous and hardworking people, the performance of a revolutionary spirit could generate linkages between an American past defined by its capacity to defend the labor of its people against foreign tyranny. The idea of the British government as external (even though of course, the vast majority of Americans were themselves British) is here important because it allows the imagination of a problem that is exterior to the virtues of the people rather than internal to their constitution and disposition.

So wearing Tri-corner hats and tramping about with Gadsen flags is safe, easy, and comfortable, because it does nothing to disrupt or challenge an existing disposition in favor of the imaginary order of things. Erecting a parallelism between the America of now and the America of then makes writing a script for the crisis relatively easy, and suggests the ability of public performance to metonymically thematize the present in terms of the past through the production of binaristic battles between people and government that just so happen to "meet cute" with the sinister image of Big Government that has driven center-right policy and politics in America since the revanchist moments of the New Right.

Like any nostalgic performance, it demands history be simplified. There are no mentions of the Articles of the Confederation, few if any technical debates about the nuances associated with the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (despite the fact that much internal Tea Party literature describes the Constitution in religious terms). That history must be as simple as this present. But whether or not it presents an "accurate" vision of history is less important than its rhetorical efficacy in a given moment, and in that moment "Join or Die" still meant something to a lot of American citizens.

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