The Libertarian Mob

A woman holds up a sign at a Tea Party rally in Nashville, Tennessee, February 27, 2009
A woman holds up a sign at a Tea Party rally in Nashville, Tennessee, February 27, 2009 (Kevin Smith)

Commentators and intellectuals on the left continue to grapple while trying to figure out the Tea Party phenomenon. For some time they could be dismissed as racist or just plain dumb but such criticism is harder to sustain no with research showing that the 18 percent or so of Americans who identify as supporters of the Tea Parties are generally middle aged, well off, and politically right of center or independent.

So a different narrative is required in order to pretend that the Tea Parties are of no significance. Writing for The New York Review of Books is Enlightenment historian Mark Lilla who doesn’t believe at all that a “conservative counterrevolution” has recently begun. The “angry demonstrations” of the Tea Parties “have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties,” he writes. “The populist insurgency is being choreographed” and has nothing to do with the otherwise honest grudges held by Americans against “government” and “the media.”

Many Americans […] have now convinced themselves that educated elites — politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers — are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink…

None of this is conventional, according to Lilla, who expresses suprise at a populist movement appealing to individual autonomy and choice — “all in the service of neutralizing, not using, political power.”

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.

And this is what Lilla describes as “the politics of the libertarian mob.” As Streiff notes over at RedState, “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.”

See, these people have merely “convinced themselves” that authorities are trying to micromanage their lives. And in that, they’re merely a third wave in popular protests, after the “revolutions” of the 1960s and 80s allowed people, respectively, to claim authority in their personal lives and in their economic activities.

Lilla wants to take the tea partygoers “seriously” though not as an intelligent force for republicanism and political change. No, what intrigues him is their “apocalyptic pessimism about public life” along with a “childlike optimism” which makes them swaddle in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.

Social scientists have been puzzled for years, he writes, about Americans’ declining trust in government while through the years, the people have only come to enjoy greater peace and prosperity. What’s more, “the confidence they express in free markets and deregulation is only relative to their sense that government no longer functions as it should.”

Evidently, the natural order of things in Mark Lilla’s world is for government to take care of things. Only when government fails would people start to believe in free-market economics?

This is nonsense, just as Lilla’s remark on people’s “childlike optimism” about their own potential is of such a condescending nature that it becomes difficult to accept the remainder of his arguments as those of a sincere historian trying to place the Tea Party movement in perspective. His article seems aimed instead at downplaying both the significance of the movement and the intellectual capacities of its participants. They are portrayed as meekly playing their roles in something of an historical inevitability though any historian will assure you that there is no such thing. The Tea Party is portrayed as an angry, ungrateful mob and government, as a misunderstood benefactor which only had the people’s interests at heart.

Lilla correctly identifies the primary sentiment that is driving the movement though: the will of the people to be left alone by the state. He just can’t imagine why anyone would want to be.

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