I agree with Ross Douthat about one thing: the tea parties resemble the antiwar protests of 2002-2003. But that’s not a good thing. Douthat correctly points out that the antiwar marches were probably counterproductive, boosting support for Republican hawks in the 2002 midterms and 2004 presidential election. (The American people don’t like prolonged wars, as polling figures for the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq conflicts demonstrate. But as the ghost of Richard Nixon could tell you, one thing Americans like less than open-ended wars is disruption in the streets.) The tea parties risk ghettoizing anti-tax sentiment.
The antiwar example should give serious small government people pause for another reason as well: the highly emotional antiwar movement from the start blended its principled anti-imperialism with ideologically partisan opposition to Bush and the GOP. As a result, once the public’s antiwar sentiment came to the fore in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Democrats reaped the rewards. But the Democrats, many of whom voted for the Iraq War in the first place, have pursued policies little different from those of the Republican since coming to power in Congress and the White House. We’re still in Iraq and may be no closer to leaving Mesopotamia today than we were to leaving Indochina in 1969. Obama has escalated the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet because the antiwar movement mixed its cause with simple opposition to Bush and the Republicans, many quondam critics of the war are now staunch Obama supporters. (See Justin Raimondo for more on this.)
Already the tea party protests have begun to follow the same path, being as much anti-liberal and anti-CNN as anti-tax and anti-spending. The problem here is not that liberals and Democrats aren’t bad and shouldn’t be opposed, but that one must be careful that in opposing them one does not overlook the crimes of the Republicans and the budget-busting militarists of the conservative movement.
There’s a deeper defect inherent in the politics of protest. Not only does it a.) often alienate the non-protesting public and b.) encourage a crude right-against-left polarization that masks the real extent of the problem (i.e., that most Democratic pols are also militarists and most Republicans are also big-time deficit spenders), but protest populism also substitutes emotions (especially rage) and symbolism for thought and effective political action. Notice that the neoconservatives of PNAC hardly ever waste their time with street theater. Instead they corral funding and work to shape policy regardless of who is in office.
Having the right emotional response to war or taxes is not enough. You must also know how the world works and how you can change it — or prevent others from changing it around you. Broad emotional responses cannot make necessary critical distinctions between, say, opposing war and opposing Republicans, or supporting Ron Paul and supporting Rick Perry, both of whom may say things that hit the right emotional buttons, but who stand for very different philosophies and policies.
There is a reason why the scoundrels of Fox News and talk radio and the neocons in the press can get behind the tea parties. The reason is that these protests pose no threat to the Republican and neocon establishment — they are thoroughly tame and impotent diversions of populism. They reinforce the power of the establishment by redirecting popular discontent into mere sound and fury. If the Right had learned anything at all from the Bush years, it should have learned that neoconservative and Republican elites are adept at manipulating emotional populists — proud patriots, heart-on-the-sleeve social cons, enthusiastic Christians. And now people who are “mad as hell” about economics are falling for the same trick. Get mad about busing — and elect Richard Nixon. Get mad about abortion — and elect George W. Bush. Get mad about the bailouts — and fill in the blank. Any folksy-demeanored Republican hack who has mastered the Right’s talking points will do.
The grassroots do not lack intelligence. They’re plenty smart. But smart people who let their emotions do their thinking for them are like bulls before the matador. Rallies and emotional exercises have their place in politics — but for too long the populist Right has mistaken such things for real power. The result has been exploding deficits, continual inflation by the Fed, and deaths of thousands of American troops overseas (to say nothing of the “collateral damage” to civilian populations in the countries we attack — hundreds of thousands of deaths, whole communities shattered). This must stop. Don’t get mad, fight smarter.