When reading articles that aim at understanding the Tea Party movement, I am reminded of the ancient fable of the elephant and the blind men. Unable to see the whole elephant at a glance, each of the blind men drew his conclusions about the nature of the elephant by laying his hands on one of the elephant's parts. The one who seizes the tail of the elephant says that the animal is like a rope. The one who puts his arms around the leg says that the elephant is like a tree trunk. The one who takes hold of the ears thinks he is handling a large fan, and so on.
When a political, religious, or cultural movement is first stirring, those who try to forecast its future development are in the same position as the blind men in the parable: they seize one feature of the movement and attempt to deduce its ultimate historical significance from this one feature alone. Many educated Europeans regarded the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation as simply the ravings of yet another unhinged heretic, Martin Luther, whose fate would surely be that of the various theological troublemakers who came before him—namely, a fiery death at the stake. Similarly, intelligent observers of the first phase of the French Revolution argued that it would move relatively tamely toward constitutional monarchy, as bloodless as England's Glorious Revolution of 1688. In both cases, the spectators of these events greatly underestimated the future impact of the movements they were considering; they made molehills out of mountains.
But it is equally possible to make mountains out of molehills. In 1970, for example, Charles A. Reich, a professor at Yale Law School, published a smash best seller, The Greening of America, in which he argued that the hippie movement of his day presaged the epoch-making cultural transformation that was destined to eliminate the last vestiges of selfishness and greed from human behavior—a thesis that vastly overestimated the lasting consequences of what in retrospect turned out as only a quaint and colorful blip in the history of human extravagance and folly.
Today many intelligent observers grope to discover what the Tea Party is all about and where it belongs on the Richter Scale of historical events. Does it signal the approach of a catastrophic upheaval, like the 9.0 earthquake of 2004 which sent devastating tsunamis across the Indian Ocean? Or will the Tea Party movement register only as a light quake in the 4.0 to 4.9 range, entailing "noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises," with "significant damage unlikely"?
David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, has recently written an article clearly aiming to put Tea Partiers in their place. Their political movement represents only a minor quake. It may cause some rattling noises but poses no threat to the status quo. It too will pass, and everything will get back to normal again. The two established parties will regain their electoral monopoly and all will be well. According to Brooks, the Tea Party movement is not only similar to hippie movement of the 1960s in terms of its lack of overall historical significance, it is a lowbrow revival of that movement, leading Brooks (or at least his editors) to dub today's Tea Partiers "The Wal-Mart Hippies"—the title of his article.
The phrase "Wal-Mart Hippies" is certainly attention-getting, as was no doubt intended. After all, who would suspect that there lurked a secret affinity between the carefree flower children of late '60s and the hard-working folks who shop at Wal-Mart? The two groups would seem a study in antithesis. The flower children of the '60s put flowers in gun barrels and chanted sweet songs of peace. At Wal-Mart people buy guns to put bullets in and use them to shoot cute and cuddly animals. Hippies scorned work and lived in idleness. The Wal-Mart shopper often works two jobs just to squeeze by. Flower children listened to acid rock. The folks at Wal-Mart adore Country and Western. Hippies celebrated free love. The people who fill the aisles of Wal-Mart marry, settle down, and raise families—often quite large ones. The hippies grooved on Zen or chanted Hare Krishna. The Wal-Mart crowd happily keeps Jesus at the wheel. Flower children opposed war. The Wal-Mart shopper sends off sons and daughters to fight them.
But Brooks is not really comparing the Tea Party movement to the hippie movement of the '60s. Instead, he is comparing it to the New Left of the same decade. In one respect he appears to have made an honest mistake. In his mind, the New Left and the hippie movement have strangely merged. Members of the New Left "went to Woodstock"—didn't they? Actually, no, they didn't. We should not confuse the carefree, frolicking hippie movement of that era with the mirthless and dour New Left of the same period. Hippies were whimsical spirits. The New Lefties were mirthless zealots. Hippies smoked pot and had fun. New Lefties read Lenin and plotted revolution. New Lefties regarded hippies as frivolous and fatuous. Hippies looked on New Lefties as the ultimate downers.
Let us concentrate on his main point. According to Brooks, the Tea Party movement should best be understood as a right-wing version of the New Left, and he lists a number of characteristics that they share: the desire to topple the status quo; a taste for conspiracy theories; a fear of being co-opted by agents of the establishment; a belief that human beings are basically good while power and authority are basically evil; a largely negative program based on an antagonism to the current state of things. In addition, Brooks points out that both the Tea Party movement and the New Left "go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches, and extreme statements"
In drawing these comparisons, Brooks scores several good hits. But his argument falls short in two important respects.
First, the set of characteristics Brooks has noted have been the common features of all the revolutionary movements throughout history, both great and small. The same points could be made about the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, the Puritan Revolution of the 17th century, the American and French revolutions of the 18th century, the myriad revolutionary movements that broke out in Europe during the 19th century, and the Russian revolution of the 20th century. All these movements sought to topple the status quo, believed in conspiracy theories, feared co-optation, distrusted authority, began by tearing down the old order, and employed street theater, usually in the form of riots and violent insurrections. In short, those features shared by the Tea Party and the New Left are the staple elements of all forms of political radicalism. This greatly undermines Brooks's attempt to minimize the historical potential of the Tea Party movement. True, it shares features of the historically insignificant New Left movement of the '60s; but it also shares features with historically portentous movements, like the Protestant Reformation and the American Revolution.
Second, Brooks completely ignores the most striking feature of the New Left—the very quality that distinguished it from the Old Left. The Old Left, in good Marxist fashion, based its revolutionary hopes on the men and women who must work for a living, while the New Left went out of its way to culturally alienate working-class Americans by supporting the Black Panthers, attacking patriotism, insulting the police, and demeaning military service. Drawn largely from major universities, and often springing from privileged and affluent backgrounds, the adherents of the New Left were elitist to the core, assuring that the appeal of the New Left would be narrowly limited to only a tiny segment of the American population. But that is precisely the point at which Brooks' comparison between the New Left and the Tea Party movement falls to pieces. The Tea Party movement has mass appeal; the New Left did not.
Polls taken in February 2010 indicate that a little more than a third of the American population views the Tea Party movement favorably, while a bit more than 20 percent view it unfavorably. Furthermore, polls also indicate that supporters of the Tea Party movement are "more energized" than their political rivals, and such energy invariably translates into political momentum. About 40 percent of Americans neither oppose nor support the Tea Party movement—roughly half because they haven't made up their minds and half because they have not yet heard of the movement. This great mass of Americans represents the least politicized classes of our nation, and it is among them that the Tea Partiers have a good chance of winning converts to their cause, since it is in the nature of populist movements to politicize those previously indifferent to politics. The great populist hero Andrew Jackson, for example, triumphed in the election of 1828 because that year twice as many people voted compared to the previous election. Populism always rouses the apathetic and apolitical to action and is doing so again today.
Brooks is right to say that many Tea Partiers shop at Wal-Mart, but far more of those who shop alongside them fall into this category of potential recruits to the cause of the Tea Party. As the movement gains momentum, Americans are more likely to support those who share their own traditional values than those who look down their noses at them.
The odds are that this great mass of Americans will eventually take their stand for or against, and the ultimate political stance they take might well depend on how many of them shop at Wal-Mart. My guess would be that the majority of them do, at least the ones who live in the red states. Liberal Democrats can afford to alienate the Wal-Mart crowd. They know they are not risking any votes. But conservative Republicans do not have the same luxury. Subtract the votes of Wal-Mart shoppers from the recent electoral tallies of the Republican Party, and you will see why.
Here we come to the most puzzling aspect of David Brooks's column. Why did he feel the need to make his derisive and gratuitous reference to Wal-Mart shoppers? The answer appears to be that Brooks is engaged in a sly argumentum ad hominem. He is attacking the Tea Party movement by pointing out that those who sympathize with it are likely to shop at Wal-Mart. Now, as a sociological observation, there may be an element of truth in this contention. But it is also possible to take the remark as a not terribly subtle appeal to his reader's latent (or not so latent) snobbery. After all, what could be more déclassé than shopping at Wal-Mart? It is a bit as if David Brooks had winked at his sophisticated audience and said, "We know what kind of people shop at Wal-Mart. And you certainly don't want to be caught dead holding the same ideas as these people, do you? That would almost be as gauche as buying your clothes at Wal-Mart."
It is easy to feel sympathy with the blind men in the fable. Yes, they are all groping in the dark, but each of them is sincerely trying to discover the nature of the beast by the best methods available with his limited resources. But too many of those currently involved in "analyzing" the Tea Party movement seem to have no genuine interest in grappling with its potential historical significance. They are content to ridicule and scoff at it. They are delighted to draw analogies between the Tea Partiers and various inconsequential fringe movements of the past, such as hippies or the New Left. But no approach could possibly be more counterproductive than a policy of conspicuous disdain. There is no surer way of convincing the Wal-Mart crowd that America really has fallen into the hands of arrogant elitists than to show contempt for working people like themselves. It is one thing to preach to the choir. It is another thing to spit at the congregation.