January 13, 2012


The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals: A movement of attitude, not ideas (Lee Harris, June 2010, Policy Review)

Intellectual critics of the Tea Party movement most often attack it for its lack of ideas, especially new ideas -- and these critics have a point. But the point they are making reveals as much about them as it does about the Tea Party. Behind the criticism lies the implicit assumption that comes quite naturally to American intellectuals: Namely, that a political movement ought be motivated by ideas and that a new political movement should provide new ideas. But the Tea Party movement is not about ideas. It is all about attitude, like the attitude expressed by the popular poster seen at all Tea Party rallies. Over the head of a hissing rattlesnake threatening to strike is inscribed the defiant slogan so popular among our revolutionary ancestors: "Don't tread on me!" The old defiant motto is certainly not a new idea. In fact, it is not an idea at all. It is a warning.

If you are an intellectual, you can debate an idea, but how do you debate a warning? No evidence can be adduced to refute it. No logic can be introduced to poke holes in it. All you can do with a warning is to heed it or disregard it. "Don't tread on me!" is not the deliberate articulation of a well-thought-out political ideology, but rather the expression of an attitude -- the attitude of pugnacious and even truculent defiance. But take away this attitude, and what is left of the Tea Party? Not much that respectable intellectuals can respect. First of all, there appears to be no consistent ideology or coherent set of policies behind the movement. Second, when intellectuals turn to examine some of the more radical proposals championed in Tea Party circles, such as the abolition of Social Security or the return to the gold standard, they can only shake their heads in dismay. These crank nostrums are well past their historical expiration date. They may elicit fanatic support from the politically naïve and unsophisticated, but no one who knows how the political world operates will pay them a moment's notice. Reviving the gold standard in order to solve our economic problems is akin to reviving the horse-and-buggy to reduce our level of carbon emissions. It ain't gonna happen, and those who put their energies into pursuing these quack solutions are at best engaged in the politics of make-believe.

It is little wonder that so many sober intellectuals find it difficult to take the Tea Party seriously, except to see it as a threat to the future of American politics. But anti-Tea Party intellectuals who are liberal have a luxury that their conservative brethren don't have. Liberals can attack and deride the Tea Party without fear of alienating their traditional allies among ordinary voters. Indeed, their mockery of the Tea Party makes good sense to them politically. It is throwing red meat to their base. But conservative intellectuals are in a wholly different position.

As the Tea Party gains in momentum, conservative intellectuals are faced with a dilemma: to join the party or denounce it. If they join, they risk losing their status as respectable public intellectuals. If they denounce the party, they risk losing influence over the traditional Republican base. [...]

The field of social psychology deals with how individuals are influenced by the circles in which they move. When the people we are around think a certain way about a particular issue, their judgment will invariably influence our own. Because most of us do not like to be in open conflict with the company we keep, there is natural tendency to align our opinions with those of our companions, especially when it is important to us to be looked upon favorably by them. A socialite moving up the social ladder will adopt the opinions favored by those on a higher rung, often without even noticing it. But under virtually all circumstances, there will be an unconscious movement towards a cognitive harmony with our friends and associates, a process by which our individual minds are fused imperceptibly into a group mind.

This process will be familiar to anyone who must frequently pass between opposing camps. An individual who is in polite company one day but in "rude company" the next will easily appreciate the pressure exerted by the group mind. To be accepted and respected by one group he must repudiate the values and ideals of the other, a problem that most of us avoid by limiting our company to a single group that shares the same values and tastes. But this solution comes at a price. Those who limit their company to a single circle of like-minded friends and acquaintances will inevitably become victims of an irresistible illusion. They will be completely unaware of the immense influence their specific social circle exercises over their own ideas and attitudes. If asked why they hold certain views and opinions, these people will sincerely argue that these are the views and opinions to which they have chosen to subscribe based entirely on their own deliberations and reflections. If asked why he supports gay marriage, for example, a liberal will not say, "Because I have been influenced by elite opinion." He will argue that he supports it because it is morally right. Needless to say, conservatives who limit their company to others of like mind will suffer from the same illusions. If asked why he thinks Obama is a Marxist, a conservative will not respond by saying, "Because I have been influenced by my favorite right-wing blog." Instead, he will tell you that it is obvious -- anyone can see that Obama is a Marxist.

It's those challenges to cognitive harmony that push them over the edge into hysteria.

Posted by at January 13, 2012 6:29 AM

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