Ben McGrath’s New Yorker article on the rise of the Tea Party movement is interesting from two points of view: first from its description of external events, that is the depiction of the various threads which have gone into fueling grassroots conservatism; but second as a description of interior events, that is how an intelligent outsider might emotionally react to what he was seeing.
The result is a sympathetic but cautious look at events which have caused “the tremors in the social bedrock, if not in the earth’s crust”, which McGrath points out happened several times before in the nation’s history. The tradition of self-organizing in the face of national paradigm change is an old one. The War of Independence and the various populist movements of the past. This perspective is probably both McGrath’s weakness and strength, because it promotes the view that the current tensions are just ‘one of those things’.
The current political crisis is being played out within the larger context of a global one. And that makes it more than just one of those things. McGrath himself catches the mood, but it is not clear whether the “empire” about to end refers to that of old social order in America or America — and by extension the West — in its place in the world.
Large assemblies of like-minded people, even profoundly anxious people anticipating the imminent death of empire, have an unmistakable allure: festive despair. A young man in a camouflage jacket sold T-shirts (“Fox News Fan,” for example), while a local district judge doled out play money: trillion-dollar bills featuring the face of Ben Bernanke. An insurance salesman paraded around, dressed as though guiding a tour of Colonial Williamsburg. “Oh, this is George Washington!” Seely said. “Hey, George, come over here a minute.”
“I’m back for the Second American Revolution,” the man said. “My weapons this time will be the Constitution, the Internet, and my talk-radio ads.”
If there was a central theme to the proceedings, it was probably best expressed in the refrain “Can you hear us now?,” conveying a long-standing grievance that the political class in Washington is unresponsive to the needs and worries of ordinary Americans. Republicans and Democrats alike were targets of derision. “Their constituency is George Soros,” one man grumbled, and I was reminded of the dangerous terrain where populism slides into a kind of nativist paranoia—the subject of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay linking anti-Masonic sentiment in the eighteen-twenties with McCarthyism and with the John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s contention that Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The name Soros, understood in the context of this recurring strain—the “paranoid style in American politics,” Hofstadter called it—is synonymous, like Rockefeller or Rothschild, with a New World Order.
It’s just possible to be too blase for your own good. It’s not just a new generation of tin-foil hatters; the underlying problems are real and as people cast around for an explanation in a vacuum where the prestige of authority and authoritative explanations have been discredited, they are bound to come up with all kinds of answers. The article’s most interesting paragraph is from an interview with one of his sources, which captures the conflict between the clean-slate thinking of the Tea Party people and the established modes of the political process.
“People are finally getting to the point where they want to educate themselves,” Seely went on. “We’ve got to get to the point where people are educated enough to find out about ‘Well, how do you endorse candidates?’ That’s really where the power is. It’s been very frustrating to me, because I tell people about my experience and it goes pffft pffft”—he gestured to indicate something passing over his head. “They say, ‘You know, we’re not interested in local things. We’re interested in national things.’ I go, ‘Well, fine. That’s good. But, really, you got to be local.’ ”
The fact that people working things out for themselves might not find the right answers doesn’t necessarily mean the authoritative answers are right either. Both sets of answers may be wrong or at merely partial in a situation which has not yet finished unfolding. The answers are still wrong because the questions have not yet been fully asked.