New York University
The latest polls suggest that “the tea party movement” may be nothing more than a discontented and “extreme” minority of Republican Party voters, surely no harbinger of a wide populist revolt. Surveys depict self-identified Tea Party members as overwhelmingly upper middle class, reliably Republican voters, exclusively white, and mostly men over the age of 60, who share anti-statist and national security views, but echo longstanding tensions between libertarian and religious/conservative stances toward cultural issues. Their protests now seem an instance, not of emergent popular association, but of the capacity of Fox media to produce the politics it claims to report. How these folks will be absorbed into or reshape the Republican Party remains to be seen, but their significance or newsworthiness as signals of a wider phenomena may have been discredited. My thought, however, is that this picture narrows way too much the resonance and actual support of tea party associations. As well, the entire episode raises issues political theorists should reflect on: first, how we explain the emergence and meaning of these protests; second, how we conceptualize the meaning of anti-statism in relation both to American history and to democratic theory; third, how we address issues around civility and violence. (This post is deeply indebted to conversations with Joe Lowndes and Peter Euben)
A. Explaining counter-subversive politics
The conduct of those organizing under the tea party metaphor seems self-evidently an example of racialized ressentiment in Nietzsche’s sense, but how do we analyze the patronizing, demeaning and even demonizing way we talk about them? My hope, then, is to turn a theoretical gaze back on ourselves as theorists. My model is Arendt’s account of the difference between Socrates and Plato: her Plato brings a truth to the ignorant, whereas for her Socrates seeks to draw out the truth in their doxa. What can we learn about or from these folks, that might (maybe not!) take us beyond saying simply that they are stupid, racist, paranoid (and propertied) men of a certain age, and undeserving of so much media attention? I am suggesting not that we conduct focus groups, but reflect on our frames of reference.
The most typical frame of reference is Richard Hofstadter’s analysis of “the paranoid style” in American politics. His argument invoked American exceptionalism: whereas European politics was organized by class conflict over structurally antagonistic interests, American politics oscillated between a pragmatic politics of “interest group” bargaining over material rewards, and a “status politics” enacted in impossible-to-compromise struggles over identity, i.e. who was “truly American.” Hofstadter attributed this rancorous status politics -and “paranoid style- to anxiety, and he derived anxiety both from the fluidity of a society shaped by markets not stable class groupings, and from issues of identity and belonging provoked by waves of immigration. Accordingly, he read the populist movement in terms of status and identity not class and interest; populist anger targeted not class domination but their displacement by “Un-American” (non-Protestant, individualist, and “native”) immigrants. For the children of these immigrants, now turned social scientists, McCarthyites and John Birchers were the heirs of these populist nativists; especially after the New Deal included the immigrant working class in a share of political and economic power, Hofstadter argued, paranoid anti-communism appeared from the margins to protest displacement (betrayal) by new and old elites sharing an increasingly pluralist center. He thus saw a society divided not by revolutionary subversives, but by irrational obsession with them.
As Michael Rogin argued about Hofstadter and other cold war social scientists: “In classic American fashion, however, these children of immigrants were turning their own autobiographies into American history. They were elevating the conflicts between immigrants and natives, the upwardly and downwardly mobile, into the central principle of a non-interest based American historical conflict....It was as if the children of immigrants were saying to [Protestants from the hinterland], “You had the fantasy that our parents were dangerous to you; that fantasy made you dangerous to them. Then, America belonged to you and you tried to exclude us. Now, with the New Deal, it belongs to us as well. But while you had only superstition and religion to de-legitimize us, we can use modern scientific methods to discredit you.”
In sum, paranoid-style analysts were participating in the status politics they analyzed. More importantly, by focusing on a status politics that exaggerated minor differences, they ignored constitutive social divisions of class and race, as if fears of identity loss or displacement could be separated from structural inequalities and corporate power. Lastly, they located the paranoid style only at the margins of society and not also at the center: by an image of a pluralist and consensual center threatened by a lunatic fringe, they obscured how national politics was organized by anti-communism as an exemplary instance of the paranoid style. Rogin thus transfigurees the “paranoid style” into a broader “counter-subversive” tradition: “To win in the counter-subversive tradition is to be an English speaking white man. To lose is to fall back among the undifferentiated mass of aliens, women, and peoples of color.” In this tradition of discourse, the nation is imagined as an “imperial self” and “the contradictions denied at the center of American life are located in the dark side of Americanism, the alien. The alien comes to birth as the American’s dark double, the imaginary twin who sustains his (or her) brother’s identity. Taken inside, this subversive would obliterate the American, driven outside, the subversive becomes the alien who serves as a repository for the disowned, negative American self...”
Second, by interpreting tea party politics especially in terms of racialized resentment at displacement, as simply the defense of racial privilege, do we repeat the elision by which Hofstadter removed the issues of class and corporate power from his account of populism as a status politics? Surely, there is a powerful element of anxiety if not literal aversion in their racialized denunciations of Obama; their animus does bespeak a desperate defense of a whiteness few name directly. But do we interpret race, now, in the way he interpreted anti-Semitism then, that is, do we reduce their populism to ethnic grievance only, to status or identity politics, as if they had no legitimate grievance with Wall Street or with the State?
B. Is there a truth in their doxa?
To pursue questions about economic populism and anti-statism, we need to credit first how hostility to the state in the American case has been inseparably tied to the protection of racial privilege and racialized domination, and not only to the defense of the market and corporate power. Historically, anti-statism appeared in “republican” criticism of monarchy, and in “anti-Federalist” critiques of the “Junto” seeking to expand the powers of a centralized state, but what was being defended against the state and what was being sought through the state? Centralization appealed to those seeking to finance Indian war and infrastructure as expansionist national projects; it was opposed by those seeking to defend de-centralized political life as well as agrarian and artisan radicalism. Since the 1850's however, the language of local self-determination and popular sovereignty has served white supremacy (and local elites) against nationalized standards of formal equality and state intervention on behalf of (racial) equality. This is one way of narrating the civil rights movement, as equality required using state power against local (racial) tyrannies being defended in the name of democratic liberty. Because racial privilege cannot be separated from the defense of local liberty in American history, it is no surprise that the state has been seen by many whites -from Oxford Mississippi to Boston Massachusetts- as the enemy of their local liberty.
In addition, herrenvolk republicanism invokes a “producer’s republic” to attack both a state parasitic on “productive” labor, and the undeserving (“unproductive”) poor supported by it. In the American political imaginary, indeed, blackness is linked to (among other things) state power; the central image in the counter-subversive politics of culture war is a demonic love triangle composed of the liberal state supporting unproductive blacks and aborting (i.e. unproductive and not only autonomous) women, at the symbolic and literal expense of white men. Tea Party rhetoric sustains these historical themes: a blackened Obama is associated with state power and redistribution as taxation of the productive supports the unproductive. (The health plan does avow a right to healthcare for 40 million uninsured people, who are coded black and/or alien, not poor.)
Might we then affirm the voice in the Tea Party that criticizes the wedding of the state and finance capital, and that denounces the lack of transparency in policy-making? Moreover, don’t we ourselves need to be clearer about the state? Surely, some of these Tea Party folks are libertarian neo-liberals attacking the state to defend de-regulated markets. But in the case of Scott Brown’s election there were many “fellow-travelers” less ideologically bound, who might be open to a left populism that addressed the connection of the state to the banks, say, without racial coding or religious affiliation. Could we invent and offer a different chain of signifiers, to remake the meaning of the state and of liberty, to link rather than oppose these on behalf of social democratic social policy? But as Tocqueville asks, in what regards is the state a problem even on behalf of equality? Can a better welfare state be the horizon of democratic politics? As we pursue equality by way of the state, does there angry voice disclose a paradoxes we need to recognize?
Despite their affluence, and their racial positioning, there is a profound sadness in these Tea Party events, and they say as much in testifying that they have “lost” their country. If we reduce this lament to endangered white privilege we may miss something important. Perhaps I am projecting here, but I hear an issue voiced in the Port Huron Statement, which also began with an assumption of affluence. That issue concerns not the sufficiency of the American welfare state, but the meaning or purpose of a society that seems unhinged from forms of democratic accountability, indeed from identifiable human purposes, and which seems to be hurtling along on a path of self-destruction. Might we dispute how they define or explain that end, by first affirming their sense of unease and anguish, and their notion of democratic accountability, to solicit their participation in an alternative resonance machine?
C. Speech and ViolenceThere is a second issue provoked by the Tea Party episode, concerning appropriate political speech and conduct, specifically hate-ful speech and violent conduct. I am disturbed by the scolding and parental tone used by critics of these protesting people, as I remember earlier days when the proverbial shoe was on the other foot. Perhaps memories of my own days of rage, and uncivil conduct, confuse me now; does an impulse to defend my own conduct then lead me, mistakenly, to protect their conduct now? Likewise, I have always defended “passionate” speech against the “reasonable” norms defined by “deliberative” democrats, but should I apply the same standard to those with opposed agendas? (As Judith Butler argued in regards to terrorism and 9/11, to try to understand violence (of Weathermen, terrorists, or right-wing actors) is not to condone it.)
One issue here is how we understand the ethos of “agonistic politics.” Does it actually entail the norms defended by deliberative democratic? If the code is -accept when you lose (an election, a privilege, a country) and find a legitimate channel for your dissent- what counts as legitimate? Legal? Discursive? Are we saying: use your words children, not your fists, but also, you must make your words reasonable in tone and civil in manner, or you will be chastised, and rightfully excluded from the playground? Are we playing Aunt Polly, but won’t admit it? Does our anxiety to contain agonism betray it? Either these folks are performing the agonistic politics we say we want, or our agonism is profoundly restricted in ways we have elided. Perhaps, then, their conduct reveals how we identify with the authority of civility and law, and not with rebellion against it, just as we seem to be defending the state against those who attack it.
Their threats of violence, and actual acts of violence, provoke similar questions. On the one hand, even those protestors who endorse the arming of militias need to be heard for the truth they speak: not only is the first rule of paranoids, as Thomas Pynchon taught years ago, that “they” are indeed following you, but also, these paranoids are right to protest state surveillance and violence. Even if they are not consistent or universal in their defense of the victims of state violence -they mention Waco but not the members of MOVE incinerated in their Philadelphia homes- they register state violence in a way we could well credit rather than ignore. (Thus did Bill Clinton’s recent oped piece in The New York Times invoke McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing as a lesson that dissent must be non-violent, while Clinton evaded but in effect endorsed and repeated the very state violence that McVeigh was protesting.)
On the other hand, I have written about and in defense of John Brown. Brown’s violence is often condemned, but not the ordinary but normalized violence of slavery, or of the current incarceral system holding two and half million people in bondage. McVeigh invoked Brown, and Clinton’s critique of McVeigh must include Brown. I don’t mean to equate Brown and McVeigh, on the contrary, I want to make a political rather than a moral argument about violence. Some of us endorse unconditionally a non-violent politics, but canonical political theory repeatedly depicts moments in politics that inescapably involve or even justify violence. Machiavelli insists a free people must be “ferocious” in their agonism, to generate fear of retaliation by the grandeees. Machiavelli praises Junius Brutus because he killed his own sons to re-found the authority of law and equality in a corrupt republic. I imagine him endorsing a prince who uses popular or legal violence (against Wall Street Bankers or Enron executives) to sustain both respect for law and popular support. He distinguishes “fighting like men” by law and “fighting like beasts” by force and fraud, but as he shows the violence and fraud in law, so he recognizes the real and spectacular effects of enforcing law. In other words, would the tea party movement have emerged at all if Obama had signaled a left populism by acted decisively and punitively against Wall Street?
I don’t mean to endorse violence or to romanticize it, but I worry about moralizing it and sanitizing politics. Of course the tolerance for violence voiced by elected Republicans enables a chain of effects that can end in assassination, vigilante ethnic violence, and civil war. Maybe, given the play of forces in the United States, an absolute denunciation of violence is needful politically, because violence can only hurt the people we care about, but then we are talking about violence as a political rather than moral issue and we have not ruled it out absolutely. But is my resistance to those who sanitize politics leading me to actually defend racist right-wing people throwing bricks? Is it better to make a universal prohibition, or to recognize that some bricks are more justified than others?