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The Electric Tea Party Acid Test

October 11th, 2010 - 3:40 pm

This is a memo to America’s hippies:

Tea Party values are hippie values.

You heard me right. The Tea Party is the one social movement in contemporary America that can rightfully claim to be the ideological heir to the original hippie movement that started in the mid-’60s. And because of this, all current hippies and ex-hippies should support the Tea Party, and by extension Tea Party candidates.

I’d like to have a private heart-to-heart talk with my fellow hippies here, so can the rest of you please stop reading now and leave us alone for a while? Thanks.

Let’s Rap

If you, as a hippie, think the thesis of this essay couldn’t possibly be true, you’ve been paying too much attention to the mainstream media. The Tea Party has been intentionally misrepresented, villainized and smeared by the powers-that-be. But this too is a feature that the Tea Party shares with hippies — the hippie movement was itself misrepresented and smeared by a different mainstream media over 40 years ago.

This essay will elucidate in a fresh way how Tea Partiers are the true heirs to the hippie ethos. When you’ve finished reading, you’ll see the Tea Party in a new light and (hopefully) understand that you may have been on the wrong side of the fence until now.

In short, the Tea Party and the hippie movement share four fundamental core values:

  • A craving for independence;
  • A celebration of individualism;
  • Joy in the freedom offered by self-sufficiency;
  • And an acceptance of the natural order of things.

The Real Political Spectrum

A necessary precursor to accepting any new worldview is to first jettison the previous worldview. So let’s start at the beginning: for the duration of this essay at least, pretend you’ve never heard of the left/right spectrum. Stick with me on this. As an intellectual exercise, just toss the notions of “left-wing” and “right-wing” out the window and begin your political education anew. Because it is this unnecessary (and now inaccurate) dichotomy between “left” and “right” which prevents most people from clearly conceptualizing the way that political thought is actually arrayed.

OK — is your mind clear? Now look at my newly conceptualized spectrum which schematizes political philosophies in a much more sensible and incisive way:

Now, I realize this may take a bit of getting used to. But soak it all in for a while as I explain.

The chart, as you can see, has not just one but two axes along which people’s worldviews are sprinkled:

The horizontal axis measures “government control,” ranging from a desire for less governmental power at one end of the scale, over to a desire for more governmental control at the other end of the scale. Most of you will understand this axis intuitively. But the vertical axis is a little more subtle, but also more eye-opening: it delineates people’s beliefs about human nature. At one end is the assumption that human nature is innate — that our personalities and other essential human attributes are built-in, unchangeable, and naturally occurring. At the other end is the belief that everything about humans is “constructed” — that we only are the way we are because of the particular cultural environment surrounding us, and that as a result people can be changed, through indoctrination, education, and/or alteration of the culture itself. I’ll expound on this more in a moment, but first I should explain the words in the ovals scattered across the chart.

Each oval contains the name of an ideology or social group positioned exactly where it fits on this new political spectrum. Note in particular the lower lefthand corner, where Hippies, the Tea Party, Libertarians and Hobos are all closely clustered together. That’s not random — they’re all near each other because their ideologies are in fact all similar.

(I include “hobos” and “bums” on the chart because the distinction between these two classic types illuminates the nature of the spectrum. In case you’re thinking that hobos and bums are just different words for the same thing, note: A hobo is an itinerant laborer who chooses homelessness because of the freedom it affords him, but who is proud of his self-sufficiency and will take temporary jobs to support himself wherever possible. A bum on the other hand is someone who is poor because he simply refuses to work or support himself, and instead is unashamed to survive on handouts and other people’s generosity. Because hobos celebrate individualism, freedom, independence and their own self-worth, they occupy the “sweet spot” at the bottom left corner of the spectrum, along with hippies and Tea Partiers. But since bums are essentially parasites on society and who survive on either formally or informally doled-out welfare, and often blame others for their predicament, they rightfully belong near the other end of the spectrum.)

On the right half of the chart are all the different varieties of political collectivism, or people who seek to impose or benefit from collectivist government. Those collectivists who think that human nature is malleable and a “cultural construct” are at the upper right; those collectivists who think that “people are the way they are” can be found at the lower right. What unifies the collectivist Nazis, Fascists and Islamists is not just their belief that humans have built-in attributes, but that their specific social, ethnic or religious group possesses built-in attributes superior to everyone else’s.

You will note that I neglected to include many political ideologies and social groups on the spectrum. That’s not an oversight. In fact, my original version of the spectrum did not include any groups whatsoever — I just wanted to introduce the idea of these two interlinked axes, and not clutter up the image with a bunch of other stuff. But I realized that some examples were needed for the illustration to be effective, so I placed some representative ideologies and identities at the appropriate places on the chart. Feel free to add your own. And if you think any particular group or philosophy is misplaced, you are encouraged to argue your case in the comments section — perhaps I’ll issue an updated version incorporating your additions and suggestions.

People who adhere to the outdated and overly simplistic left/right divide may have trouble grokking this new way of looking at society. Newsweek, for example, recently claimed that the Tea Party has an “anarchist streak.” I find this interesting, because the Newsweek writer understood that both Tea Partiers and anarchists are on the same end of the “Government Control” axis, but couldn’t grasp that, viewed from a different orientation, Tea Partiers are at the opposite end of the “Human Nature” axis from anarchists, who want to construct an (impossible) law-free utopia based on the assumption that people can change and control themselves in the absence of any authority whatsoever.

This brings up a good point: Scroll back up to the chart and think of it in terms of “halves.” Leftists want to highlight the fact the both Tea Partiers and Nazis are in the same “half” of the chart — the bottom half, as it is currently oriented (although of course the way I rotated the chart was completely random — there is no inherent meaning in the up-down-left-right placement, and I just as easily could have designed it to be 90 degrees or 180 degrees a different way). Of course, as mentioned above, the crucial difference is that Nazis and other totalitarians want to use government to enforce their idea of the natural order of things, whereas Tea Partiers have the exact opposite urge — to have no government enforcement at all, and to let the natural order of things play itself out — naturally.

On the other hand, The Tea Partiers (and I) want you to notice that all the “bad” ideologies, including Nazism and communism, also share space on the same half of the chart, in this case the “more government control” half.

So, the chart is viewpoint-neutral; each person can express their pre-existing political bias by pointing out how this-or-that political enemy is at least in the same half as some identifiably bad ideology. It just all depends on what angle from which you choose to view the spectrum.

About That Vertical Axis…Bill Whittle to the Rescue

I was scouting around with some frustration trying to find an existing concise encapsulation of the Tea Party movement when, as if on cue, Bill Whittle released “What We Believe, Part 1,” a pitch-perfect summation of the Tea Party’s core belief system, brilliant in its brevity. And in the process Bill just happens to solve my other problem: He lays out in crystalline tones an explanation of the “Human Nature” vertical axis of my political spectrum. Since I can’t top Bill’s calm and reassuring demeanor, I’ll just let you watch him yourselves; the full video is several minutes long, but the part relevant to this essay begins at 0:52 into the clip and ends around 5:21:

I realize not everyone wants to interrupt their reading to watch a video, so here’s a transcription of the key section of Bill’s monologue, with the passages explaining what I mean about the difference between “constructed” and “innate” human nature highlighted in bold:

Let’s recap for our conservative friends, and introduce to our liberal ones, some of the key points of what we conservatives, especially Tea Party conservatives, would call our core beliefs. And we’ll start with the two biggest ones: Small government, and free enterprise.

OK — why do we like small government? Well, the first and most important thing you need to know about us is that we don’t believe that human nature can fundamentally change. You may not hear this a lot, but when you get down to it, it really is the basis for conservatism in general.

We don’t think people are perfectable, if only they could make the right laws and rules. We believe that human beings, like every other creature on the earth, are motivated primarily by their own self interests.

Now, many modern people see this belief that we have — that human nature is fundamentally flawed and selfish, and essentially unchangeable — as cynical and pessimistic. On the contrary. It is this belief that generates a society with the checks and balances against the natural human bastardliness that basically wants to tell other people what to do.

These checks and balances prevent the accumulation of too much power in the hands of too few people. And that defiance of these checks and balances by the current political class, of both parties, is the real threat that the Tea Party movement is a response to.

Because all you have to do is open a history book with just the most basic sense of fairness and you will discover time and time and time again that the very same ideas being tried by big government today — ideas which we call “progressive” — have been tried in one form or another all the way back through recorded history, and have always failed. Because they’re based on what people hope and wish that human nature is, instead of what it really is.

Y’know, the British tried Big State Socialism in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a disaster. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was about remaking human nature into the new “Soviet Man,” who would share everything: “From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”

…[Litany of communist atrocities]…

The French Revolution was fought for the belief that they could make what they called “The New Man,” perfect and virtuous, once free of religion, income disparity and all the rest. Now, in order to bring about that paradise, thousands of people had to be guillotined each week, in what was called the Great Terror.

And on and on and on it goes. The Romans, in 150 BC, were promoting these same “progressive” ideas.

There’s nothing progressive about progressivism. The belief that you can get something for nothing, that you can get the government to take something by force from other people and give it to you — like, the money for your health care, for example — has been tried many, many times before and it has failed every time.

No, my friends, there’s only one really progressive idea. And that is the idea of legally limiting the power of the government. That one genuinely liberal, genuinely progressive idea — the Why in 1776, the How in 1787 — is what needs to be conserved. We need to conserve that fundamentally liberal idea. That is why we are conservatives.

Is it clearer now? Artificially constructed collectivist utopias require that human nature be altered for any new society to work, because elements of existing human nature — greed, jealousy, lust for power, a need for privacy, and so on — would render the system unfeasible. So utopian collectivists necessarily believe that humans must be changed and can be changed (for the better, of course). This may seem like a minor detail to the collectivist program, but actually it’s the main sticking point, one which the collectivists have never been able to solve (because, as any sane person knows, it’s unsolvable; human nature can’t be changed). But that hasn’t stopped them from trying, again and again, with ever-increasing levels of coercion, to mold the human spirit into the desired shape. Entire fields of philosophy have been devised to prop up “constructionism,” but reality is a stubborn thing.

(As an aside: If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend Stephen Pinker’s 2003 masterpiece The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which gloriously demolishes the foundational assumptions of those on the top half of my political spectrum.)

The earliest proto-hippie protests against the Vietnam War were overtly anti-LBJ

But aren’t hippies inherently pro-Democrat and anti-Republican? Hasn’t it always been that way?

Au contraire. In fact, as the photos sprinkled throughout this page show, the mass-movement hippie era first arose during the Johnson administration, and was explicitly hostile to Johnson’s Democratic Party agenda — in particular his foreign policy agenda. Despite a fair amount of after-the-fact revisionism in which Nixon has been retroactively cast as the villain of the Vietnam War, remember that Nixon did not become president until the end of January, 1969, and that for the vast majority of the anti-war protests of “the sixties,” LBJ was president and LBJ was consequently the target of the protesters’ wrath.

This 1967 hippie poster depicted President Johnson’s big-government “Great Society” programs as hell on Earth.

The truth is: Hippies didn’t particularly like Lyndon Johnson, the Democrats, or their ’60s-era “Great Society” big-government programs. Look at the poster on the right for a typical opinion, untouched by the revisionism of later historians.

A popular hippie chant at the time, as you may remember, was “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?” Now — does that sound like the kind of thing Johnson voters would say?

But above all it was LBJ’s interventionist foreign policy which most outraged the hippies, primarily because they — selfishly, but understandably — didn’t want to get drafted (or have their boyfriends get drafted). So they opposed the war out of self-interest, not really because they wanted the communists to take over Vietnam. (At least not at first — more on that later.)

In fact, which candidate ran as the anti-war candidate in 1968, at the height of the hippie movement? Why, it was Republican Richard Nixon, who won the election in part because of this issue — despite himself being totally disconnected from hippie-dom and having no grasp whatsoever of the counterculture. (Of course, the fickle electorate, having up until that time held the Democrats responsible for the war, rapidly turned on Nixon after 1969 and blamed him for not ending our involvement in the conflict as quickly as he had promised.)

Chicago police massing at the 1968 Democratic convention.

1968: The Hippies turn their wrath on the Democrats

1968 was the apogee of the original hippie era, and it also happened to be an election year. If you knew nothing about actual history, and believed that hippies were from the beginning pro-Democrat and anti-Republican, you would likely assume that hippie protesters must have descended with fury on the 1968 Republican National Convention, intent on showing their displeasure with those nasty conservatives. And, of course, you’d be entirely wrong. The 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach was pretty much ignored by hippies, protesters and the media. But the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — now, that was a different story entirely. Right from the beginning, the Democratic convention was wracked with violent protests, as hippies (along with many other related groups) fought with police and the National Guard.

Throughout the convention, as the clashes between the protesters and the police got worse, Democratic Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was accurately pegged by the hippies as the big-government totalitarian thug that he was. And Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey wasn’t getting much love either — he was dismissed as just another tool of the system.

So, the hippies of 1968 didn’t particularly like either major political party, but they showed a particular anger toward the Democrats for screwing everything up — while giving the Republicans a shrug. Which, amazingly, is exactly the way the Tea Party feels today: Anger towards Democrats, and a grudging acceptance of Republicans as the lesser of two evils.

Just like the Tea Partiers do today, the early hippies tried to keep their protests peaceful.

Where Are the Tea Party Love Beads?

You might be thinking, “But wait — Tea Partiers don’t take LSD or wear long hair or practice free love or dance barefoot in Golden Gate Park. So they’re not really like the hippies at all.” Yes, all that may be true, but those surface cultural details are not the point; the underlying philosophy inspiring both movements is the point. Don’t confuse the form that a movement takes with the inspiration behind it. For example, the Gold Rush of 1849 and the dot-com boom of the 1990s manifested in completely dissimilar cultural contexts, but the underlying financial excitement was exactly the same. The same is true of the Tea Party and the hippie movement. Actually, considering that the Tea Party demographic skews toward people in their 50s and 60s, it may very well be that many Tea Partiers did wear long hair and practice free love 40 years ago when they were young. In other words, a certain percentage of Tea Partiers aren’t simply like the original hippies — they were the original hippies, but in the intervening decades have grown less ostentatious and these days express their anti-authoritarian urges in a more culturally conventional manner, now that adolescence has worn off.

And don’t fall for the media misrepresentation of Tea Partiers as nothing but a new label for right-wing Christians. Yes, there are some “social conservatives” in the Tea Party — but they’re only one of a wide array of types within the movement. In fact, plenty of Tea Partiers strongly distance themselves from social conservatives. It’s not monolithic.

Hippie Roots

Of course, as has been documented endlessly, the hippie movement originally grew out of the Beat movement, and the two primary guiding lights of the Beats, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, were both wildly anti-authoritarian. But that doesn’t mean they were “liberal”: what most people don’t know is that Kerouac, while being anti-authoritarian and unconventional for his era, was in fact politically conservative, something which continues to mystify naive young leftist historians:

At the height of the counterculture, Kerouac declared: “Listen, my politics haven’t changed, and I haven’t changed! I’m solidly behind Bill Buckley, if you want to know. Nothing I wrote in my books,” he confessed in a 1968 interview, “nothing could be seen as basically in disagreement with this.”

In other words, Kerouac was a true individualist iconoclast, a fact that [Tom] Hayden still finds incredibly frustrating.

I don’t see this as unexpected at all: Kerouac’s keen mind noticed and then recoiled in horror from the collectivism and anti-Americanism that had begun to creep into the hippie movement as the ’60s progressed. To anyone who understands the kernel of philosophical clarity which conjoined the Beat movement with the early hippies, it should come as no surprise that Kerouac, the original inspiration for hippiedom, self-identified as a conservative. Individualism was the whole point, from the very beginning of the postwar counterculture. (Burroughs, for his part, seemed stubbornly apolitical; and Allen Ginsberg chased every cultural and political fad that came down the pike.)

In one of those cosmic coincidences which only reveal that the cosmos may not be so coincidental after all, while I was putting the finishing touches on this essay, the New York Times published in its Book Review section an essay comparing the Beats to the Tea Party and touching on some of the same points I make here — though focusing exclusively on the Beats and their 1950s brand of iconoclastic individualism, rather than the hippies. While at first I thought it extremely odd that the New York Times would anoint the Tea Party as the inheritors of hip by publishing such an essay (leaving aside the momentary frustration I felt in having what I thought was an original idea partly scooped a few hours before I posted), the more I pondered it, the more I realized it was inevitable: As the election approaches, the Tea Party is rapidly maturing into a significant societal movement, and anyone with a sense of history who ponders this cultural sea-change will immediately recognize in it the precise same anti-authoritarian attitude which drove earlier American social upheavals.

Mass anti-government hippie protest in 1967 San Francisco — the precursor to the Tea Party?

Communist Co-option

If everything I’ve said so far is true, then why does most everyone associate the hippies with left-wing politics, and why do most neo-hippies also identify as left-wing?

Ah, very good question. And the answer is the tragedy of the hippie era.

After 1968, hippie politics swung very rapidly and very deeply into leftist ideology. And this is because communists and socialists very effectively co-opted the anti-war movement and transformed it during the Nixon era into an anti-American and anti-capitalist movement. This infiltration and co-option of what had been a pacifist/individualist/isolationist movement is actually one of the major turning points of American political history — one which reverberates to this day, because that new framework adopted by the counterculture remains in place to this day and deeply influences 21st-century politics.

Of course, things are not so cut-and-dried. History rarely is. There was a leftist presence in the hippie movement from its very beginnings. That’s undeniable. And most historians now zoom in on and focus intently on those early leftist influences. But between 1965 and 1968, the heart of the hippie era, overt nanny-state leftism was actually just a minor thread in the hippie philosophy, which was more focused on planting the flag of personal freedom and getting away from government influence, rather than demanding that government take an ever-increasing role in our private lives.

And there are plenty of former ’60s-era radicals and hippies who now see the light — that the heady counter-culture and political excitement which swept them up in the late ’60s and early ’70s became contaminated and ultimately ruined by noxious oppressive big-government communists who harnessed the era’s youth energy for ultimately nefarious ends. People like Roger L. Simon and David Horowitz are among the best-known examples of an entire class of former hippies and radicals who now realize that modern-day “conservatism” — including the Tea Party — embodies the true ideals they had been seeking all along as hippies.

And yes, that includes me. I’m not of the same generation as Simon and Horowitz, but I did grow up in a hippie-ish environment and considered myself a “hippie kid” for most of my young life. And I looked the part. Once while taking my first cross-country trip through Middle America I and my fellow young rebels were chased out of a small town by a mob of angry citizens shouting, “Get out of here, you long-haired hippies!” Oh, how we laughed. A moment to be proud of. And yet, years after the fact, I can now almost understand the motivation of those shotgun-toting “bitter clingers” — they saw us hippies as an invading force bringing the taint of leftist ideology into their community. I can sympathize, in retrospect.

But that was long ago. In many ways I still consider myself a hippie (but more of the pure unadulterated Eden Ahbez/Gypsy Boots variety), even if I no longer look like the kind of person you’d chase out of town. I still hew to many of my earlier hippie opinions — I’m an environmentalist, an eccentric, and I pretty much stay away from consumer culture and mainstream society. But, as it is true for many Americans, my natural tendency to drift toward conservatism as I grew older was given a life-altering jolt on 9/11, after which I became more of a foreign policy hawk. But still a hippie in my mind. A hawkish hippie, let’s say.


LBJ announcing escalation of the Vietnam War in 1966. Note the similarity between this image of LBJ and the fictional big-government totalitarian dictator depicted in Apple’s famous “1984″ ad (seen on the right).

Big Hippie Tent

Which brings me back to the beginning. This essay was addressed to self-identified hippies — but I assume that plenty of non-hippie liberals have been eavesdropping on us. And it may very well be that you eavesdroppers may not personally think of yourselves as “hippies,” per se, but you do hold to some hippie-esque values which place you in the Big Hippie Tent. There are all sorts of “neo-hippies” who use other identifiers. And any number of preferences and habits and opinions would make you a semi-hippie, as it were. Do any of these apply to you: Are you a Deadhead? Attracted to alternative spiritualities? Avoid chain stores? Love nature? Listen to ’60s music, reggae or jam bands? Smoke pot? Go to Burning Man? Wear ethnic clothing? Like world cultures? You may not be a full-on hippie, but you’ve been influenced by hippie culture. And because of that you may feel some allegiance to what you have always assumed is hippie politics: left-leaning and “progressive.” And that allegiance, perhaps unconsciously, has prevented you from embracing, or even truly acknowledging, the anti-authoritarian vim of the Tea Party. Tempting, isn’t it? And now you no longer have to resist temptation. Let it all in: your newfound awareness that the Tea Party is the embodiment of the hippie ethos after all.

You’re home at last.

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