Conservative intellectuals kowtow to the Tea Party.

Conservative intellectuals kowtow to the Tea Party.

Conservative intellectuals kowtow to the Tea Party.

Scrutinizing culture.
Nov. 1 2010 2:38 PM

Late for the Tea Party

Conservative pundits rush to catch up.

Glenn Beck. Click image to expand.
Glenn Beck

That "giant sucking sound" you hear—remember Ross Perot's phrase?—is the sound of once-dignified and intellectually sophisticated conservative pundits attempting hastily, belatedly, and for the most part clumsily to suck up to the surging Tea Party phenomenon.

While some conservatives have kept their distance from the ignorant TPers (who imbibe the historical perspicacity of Glenn Beck) and the thuggish, Bircher, conspiracist, head-stomping, racist-tolerant Tea Party ideology (Carl Paladino only forwarded racist e-mails, he didn't create them himself!), we have lately—in just this final month before the election—been treated to the spectacle of conservative pundits and think-tank intellectuals rushing into print with their discovery of that familiar Washington quality, found whenever a new power bloc emerges: A "Strange New Respect," this time for the TPers.

These pundits clearly sense the train leaving the station, the party going on without them, pick your cliché, and it sure looks like they're trying to give their late awakening a profound intellectual rationale. "We are you!" they seem to be saying to the TPers. "Don't think of us as elitists. We're the good elitists, the ones on your side! We always believed what you believe, and we can give you the intellectual gravitas Glenn Beck cannot." One almost gets the feeling reading their encomiums to the TPers that they feel they are addressing a species of noble savage. Unlettered but virtuous. Sadly it conjures up a memory of that old cartoon about a giant bulldog with a spiked collar with a little lapdog dancing around it, yipping belligerently, "You get 'em Spike! Don't let them insult you like that."

Advertisement

It's not just the intellectuals from think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute and the New York and D.C. media elite who are jockeying to display their "right from the start" credentials. Even the mighty Rush Limbaugh rushed to assure his radio followers—a week or so after the Times had done a story about the way master historian Glenn Beck had made relatively obscure conservative tomes newly popular—that he, El Rushbo, had recommended Austrian free market economist Friedrich August von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom to his audience "as far back as '88 or '89."

But Limbaugh has something like a rivalry with Beck. The hasty Tea Party conversions I'm speaking of are those of elite conservative intellectuals who suddenly discover remarkable commonality between their long-held views and those of the new force in American politics. There's an old saying, "The Supreme Court follows the election returns"; so too does this once-proud group of thinkers suddenly kowtowing to one of the most shameless anti-intellectual movements in American history.

They are prereading the election returns. (If the election is not a total Tea Party triumph and the TP eventually goes down the toilet, they will have to live with having ineradicably TP-ed themselves forever.)

One would have hoped to find some resistance from those conservatives who like to pride themselves on their Burkean and Buckleyan heritage of erudition and who value the careful study of history and its lessons. And, yes, there is some resistance. (FrumForum and the occasional lonely dissenter such as Peter Wehnerare among the few notable holdouts.) But mostly there is a sudden hasty rush to be at the forefront of the movement of the moment. Truly the spectacle of sucking up is hilarious, the great entertainment in political media in some time.

Advertisement

First we get Ross Douthat, the Harvard-educated New York Times columnist and blogger, dispelling liberal myths about the Tea Party. (As if we made up all those tales of racist e-mails, Nazi impersonators, and the private goon squad handcuffing a reporter.) It's a prime ploy among the late-to-the-party pundit crowd: They're really attacking liberals who don't understand the TPers the way they in their wisdom do; they're not merely throwing themselves at the feet of the Tea Party.

So Douthat portrays himself as boldly cutting down the liberal myth that Tea Partiers are "hypocritical"—the early plethora of "Get the government's hands off my Medicare" signs to the contrary. Douthat tells us that, in fact, TPers are courageous truth-tellers.

Why, did you know, you ignorant liberal myth-makers, "some Tea Party-backed candidates have been refreshingly courageous on this front—whether it's Rand Paul telling Fox News that he'd support higher deductibles for seniors, or [Ken] Buck apologizing to Michael Bennet, his Senate opponent in Colorado, for Republican demagoguery on Medicare"?

Profiles in courage indeed! The sheer guts it took to "support higher deductibles." Give that man a Senate seat. He is the Aqua Buddha of fearless fiscal sanity.

Advertisement

No profile in courage for Douthat, alas. At the close of his column, he sounds an uncertain trumpet by saying: "The jury is still out," thus giving himself an out if the winds shift and the thuggery and ignorance of the TPers get in the way of their presumed triumph and place in history beyond transient neo-Know Nothing movements like George Wallace's and short-lived anti-Washington crusades like Ross Perot's. Boldly temporizing, Douthat keeps one foot in each conservative camp as he nonetheless gives the TPers a degree of credibility in the pages of the Times with his Broderesque semi-blessing.

One characteristic of all these suck-up apologias is the "to be sure ... there are a lot of psychos in the TP" paragraph. Douthat admits there are troubling echoes of John Birch in some TP rhetoric but argues that the Birchers "only had a crackpot message; they never found a mainstream one. The Tea Party marries fringe concerns (repeal the 17th Amendment!) to a timely, responsible-seeming message about spending and deficits."

We see versions of the "two Tea Parties" argument in other late-to-the-party efforts.

I felt particularly bad when I read Hoover Institution scholar Peter Berkowitz's essay a few days later in the Wall Street Journal. Berkowitz is a conservative intellectual whose work I've long admired for its fine-tuned, historically informed thinking about difficult problems and their subtleties, even when I disagree with his conclusions. So it was dismaying to see him turning the entire meaning of the Constitutional Convention on its head in order to defend TPers with a remarkable bit of sophistry titled "Why Liberals Don't Get the Tea Party Movement." Echoing Douthat's tactic of attacking liberal "myths" about the Tea Party rather than formally signing up, he tries to explain that they're not know-nothings but are intellectually the descendents of a valued strand in American constitutional thinking.

He concedes there are some "kooks" in the TP but attempts to instruct us that the TP really is a reincarnation of an anti-central-government tendency to be found in the generally pro-central-government arguments for the Constitution:

... far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy.

Advertisement

Put that way, one can hardly imagine how America limped along for more than two centuries without the likes of Glenn Beck and that SS impersonator.

For some reason he doesn't spell out what this noble language means in practice. According to a compilation by Brian Beutler at TPMDC, these are the following laws and institutions the astute and judicious TP constitutionalists have declared to be unconstitutional:

 ● Social Security
 ● Medicare
 ● the minimum wage act
 ● membership in the United Nations
 ● unemployment compensation
 ● the Civil Rights Act

Yes, there was some distrust of central government in all the Federalists and anti-Federalist arguments, but the entire purpose of the Constitutional Convention was to create a stronger central government than the weak decentralized one set forth in the Articles of Confederation. So it takes some skillful verbal footwork to reconcile the TPers' purported "constitutionalism," which fetishizes every word in that document, with those noble patriots who opposed the Constitution.

And there's another factor. Something I wouldn't accuse Berkowitz of, but something both the "early adopters" and the latecomers to the Tea Party rarely consider. What, do you think, is the source of the utterly disproportionate frenzy and hysteria we saw in the Tea Party when it emerged, red in tooth and claw, in the summer of '09? They didn't like a health care bill and suddenly we were living under "tyranny," and the Constitution had been junked by some Kenyan Manchurian Candidate. Intellectual defenders of the TP never consider the possibility it was not a coincidence that this rebellion against the federal government just happened to coincide with the election of a black president. A standard liberal who provoked unhinged hatred in some even if it didn't always express itself as racial animosity. Although, in fact, sometimes it did. I can testify to the often open racism endemic to the TPers, from the years when I blogged as the liberal voice on a conservative blog site that early on jumped into bed with the TP, and I subsequently found myself the recipient of scores of truly hateful racial attacks on Obama whenever I praised him.

Advertisement

I think what bothers me in Berkowitz's and Douthat's pieces is less their weak tea arguments than their apparent opportunistic willingness to say, "Yes, we conservative intellectuals are with you!" Or, "I am you!" as Christine O'Donnell recently exclaimed. We will give you sophisticated-sounding rationales for your cruel, paranoid rejection of the idea of helping the poor. Or even putting out fires in burning houses.

You know the story of the "privatized " Tennessee fire department that allowed a house to burn down with pets in it because the family was behind in their payments to the privatized department. TPers offer an intellectual defense for those firefighters (since a public fire department would be an evil manifestation of oppressive government).

Then who should step forward but the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray, he of the Bell Curve, an evergreen resource for the intellectual rationale for a racial view of social problems (even that is not his intent). Murray knows just who's elite and who's not. In the Oct. 24 Washington Post he told us:

That a New Elite has emerged over the past 30 years is not really controversial. That its members differ from former elites is not controversial. What sets the tea party apart from other observers of the New Elite is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America and ignorant about the lives of ordinary Americans.

Let me propose that those allegations have merit.

Advertisement

Yes, he's not elitist. He's down with the people!

I could go on. The ignorance of the Tea Party seems almost contagious. Poor Charles Krauthammer, writing his late-to-the-party, strange new respect column about the liberals and Tea Party, tried to make the case that the answer to TP popularity was simple. It was all about how if liberals used Occam's razor, they'd see there's a "simple" source for the TPers' hostility to Obama: The econometric lessons of Greece and the Euro crisis. Right. You hear a lot of that in TP discourse.

But in trying to club liberals on the head with his famed erudition, Dr. Krauthammer makes an elementary mistake in his use of "Occam's razor."
Occam's razor is a philosophical term that derives from the widely misunderstood pronouncement of 14th century British philosopher William of Ockham. Ockham declared (in the translation from the Latin), "Entities ought not to be multiplied beyond necessity."

This is often mistaken to be an assertion that the "simplest answer" to a problem is the one that contains the fewest "entities" (meaning factors). Or, as it's often misstated with great authority: The simplest solution is the most correct. Not true! And this is not one of those pedantic objections that I bring up just because it always annoys me when used by pseuds. It really goes to the heart of what any intellectual should object to in the TPers: They're simple-minded believers that simple solutions are always right. Okcham's true emphasis was not on the fewest "entities," the simplest solution, but the correct solution, the one with the necessary number of entities, which could often exceed the fewest. That's what's dismaying about these conservative latecomers I used to respect for their respect for complexity. Silly me, it's power they want, a seat at the table, and they'll find complex rationales for simple-mindedness if that's necessary.

Frankly I can't understand how Krauthammer could get this wrong without believing that at some level the TP simple-mindedness is contagious. Do you want to hear the true voice of the Tea Party? A perfect illustration of their hatred of complexity and their savage simple-mindedness lies in their response to neoconservative intellectual Ron Radosh's attempt to introduce complexity into the discussion. One has to sympathize with Radosh because, as a former member of the Young Communist League, he was pilloried by the left for being right about the Rosenbergs' guilt far ahead of his time. Now he's pilloried on the right because he's been writing blog posts about bad conservative history (like that of Glenn Beck) while trying like Berkowitz to find some genuine historical rationale for the TP.

Sadly the TPer has no tolerance for the complexity of genuine history. Here are two comments appended to a Radosh blog post that tries to combine criticism of Glenn Beck with some grudging respect for the TP. But the TP commenters will not have it. Consider the first comment as representative of the true thuggish, bigoted voice of the TPer when it meets with opposition and a venomous hatred of other races and religions comes out. Here is the kind of person Douthat, Berkowitz, Murray, and Krauthammer want to join forces with:

With Halloween right around the corner, perhaps this article [Radosh's post] is fitting. Our radical socialist Islam-loving America-loathing president spawns his insane communistic schemes and elevates more avowed communists into positions of power, he tramples on the U.S. Constitution, he dedicates NASA to the mission of making Muslims feel good about Islam's titanic contributions to the U.S. space program, and Ron Radosh trots out the old "right-wing extremist" bogeyman complete with a scary "John Birchers" soundtrack playing in the background.

Earth to Ron Radosh: Our nation has been hijacked by genuine radical extremists—they're not on the right side of the aisle. Jihad is spreading, and our monstrous president is indifferent or worse, but you talk about "right-wing extremism," and John Birch and the paranoia of America's anti-communists?

If it's Halloween, then the fruitcake season is right around the corner too, and Ron Radosh shows us he's ready and can hardly wait.

So Madisonian, right? Could have come right out of one of the original Federalist pamphlets that Berkowitz quotes, no?

And then there are those of Radosh's commenters who openly advocate mass murder in response to Radosh's mild attempt to rescue historical truth from the TP sewer:

More and more every day in every way I understand the French Revolution. Elitists are evil and insane and sometimes the only thing you can do is kill them wholesale. Like in WWII. It's a real bitch. Makes me ashamed to be human but it is so obvious today it hurts.

This my friends, I'm afraid to say, is the true voice of the Tea Party these conservative intellectuals are trying retroactively to endow with gravitas.

I'd suggest that these latecomers and any others who are trying to make the cut-off spend some time with a valuable book called Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by my friend Steven R. Weisman. (Someone whose appreciation for complexity I've admired since we were both in a very complex Milton seminar at Yale. Yes, we're elitists!) The Moynihan book (and Weisman's essay in it) offers the picture of someone who calls himself a liberal but who is more than anything a thinker and a connoisseur of complexity.

Moynihan proclaims himself a liberal, although he's always fighting against various liberal fashions and being misunderstood and rejected by many liberals. He always struck me as more a Burkean conservative. He loved complexity, detested simple ideas and over simplifications. The late-to-the-party Tea Party pundits, indeed all contemporary pundits, could do with a refresher course in complexity that the Moynihan book offers. Rather than racing to tell ignorant TPers, "I am you."

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.