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Ron Radosh

Frank Rich: An Embarrassment to the New York Times

February 28th, 2010 - 7:22 pm

As for the tea parties, the second essay Frank Rich should read– as quickly as possible — is that by a distinguished commentator whose perch is at the Council on Foreign Relations, Walter Russell Mead. Writing on his blog at the site of The American Interest, Mead says:

A very different kind of Tea Party has my friends in the upscale media and policy worlds gravely concerned.   To hear them talk, all the know-nothings, wackadoo birther wingnuts, IRS plane bombers, Christian fundamentalists out to turn the US into a theocracy, the flat earthers and the racists have somehow joined together into a force that is as politically formidable as it morally and intellectually contemptible.  These Tea Partiers, I am frequently told, are ‘reactionaries’.  They long for an older, safer and whiter America — a more orderly place where their old fashioned values were unchallenged, one in which ethnic minorities weren’t in their faces, gays weren’t demanding acceptance, and in general life looked more like “Ozzie and Harriet” and less like “South Park.”

Perhaps Rich read this, and thought he may as well prove Mead correct! But no, because Mead goes on to present a nuanced, thoughtful and interesting essay about the tea partiers, precisely the opposite of what one gets from what used to be the newspaper of record.

What inspires their members, he says, is “the value of revolutionary change.” Rather than portray them as Frank Rich and the MSM does, Mead puts the movement in perspective as part of a long tradition of American populism, one that sometimes comes from the left and at other times from the right. In both cases, they see their opponents as an “elite,” that is opposed to “the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.” And, although one might oppose some of what the tea party movement stands for, he notes its potential:

Its ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help’ of experts and professionals.  No idea has deeper roots in American history and culture and by global standards Americans have historically distrusted doctors, lawyers, bankers, preachers and professors: everybody who presumes that their special insider knowledge gives them a special right to decide what’s best for the rest of us and historically no political force has been stronger than the determination of ordinary Americans to flatten the social and political hierarchy.

Contrary to Rich and the NYT, Mead notes that the “‘Birthers’ and ‘truthers’ are being gently but firmly ushered to the door.” Recall that when the representative of Newsmax.com spoke at the convention in Nashville, he was roundly and publicly condemned and chastised on the spot by Andrew Breitbart. Somehow, this little fact did not get into Rich’s column, since it would refute the argument he tries to make. Mead notes that at present, “many Tea Partiers seem to want a populist coalition that focuses on economic and government reform while moving more slowly on social issues. Perhaps the movement is pulling itself together more quickly than past populist upsurges have done because the combination of higher education levels and better communications make today’s populists a little more ready for prime time than some of their predecessors.”

Mead understands, as Rich does not, that much is wrong today. He puts it this way. “Today in the United States many of our core institutions are fundamentally out of sync with reality: they cost more than we can pay but they don’t do what we need.” He continues with the hard evidence of this. And as the case is with the proposed ObamaCare, it will increase government control over a great portion of the economy without allowing for the ability of our nation to pay for it, since its proponents seem to care less about the looming catastrophic effects of the deficit on future generations.

Yes, the Obama crew says. We know the answers. Trust us. We are the experts. “Wise policy wonks,” as Mead writes, “must rejigger the health care system. … They dream of intricate, finely crafted reforms whose beauty can only be appreciated by a few.” And, he adds, they are not far from the mark: “They suspect on good evidence that whatever delicately balanced, intricately designed policy proposals go into the legislative process, something much cruder and more, well, porcine will inevitably come out at the other end.”

The result has been, then, and could be again, a very different kind of transformation of the political system — and not one favored by the administration currently in power. That, Mead suggests, is what the tea party movement is all about, part of a big wave, described by him  as a movement based on a “right of center populism that now seems to be taking shape, and potentially this movement could have the kind of impact on the country that the original Jacksonians did.”

They are, he thinks, ready for prime time, if they find a smart and knowledgeable leader, someone, Mead thinks, from the military like Stanley McChrystal or David Petraeus. Mead, unlike Frank Rich, takes the movement seriously, and while acknowledging its pitfalls, treats it fairly and seriously. Once, so long ago, we might see an essay like his in the pages of The New York Times.  That, of course, was long, long ago. No wonder it loses circulation and influence. In the meantime, those of us who still can’t give up our traditional Sunday paper with its Arts and Leisure section, book review and crossword puzzle, have to put up with the likes of Frank Rich.

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