The Tea Partiers are More Like 2oth Century European Totalitarians than 18th Century American Revolutionaries. The original Tea Parties on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States immediately prior to the American Revolution, though more complex and less noble than American mythology would have it, were not the anti-intellectual and anti-empathy movements that the modern Tea Party is. Those characteristics align our own contemporary movement more with 20th century European Fascism and Eastern European/Asian Communism than with liberty-loving American revolutionaries. And The Tea Party’s ideology is even in some ways quite similar to the anti-government sentiments that inflamed the Russian populace to support a revolution that put into place a government more autocratic and repressive than the one it overthrew.
Both the Central European fascist countries (Germany, Italy, Spain), and the Eastern European and Asian communist countries, were deeply imbued with a passionate anti-intellectualism, always identifying intellectuals with the hated scapegoats (often Jews), or sometimes identifying intellectuals themselves as the primary hated scapegoats (as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia). This tracks closely with the Tea Party’s identification of American intellectuals as the “elitists” they most fervently despise, and with their idolization of distinctly non-intellectual (and non-intelligent) leaders such as Sarah Palin.
The indifference to, or outright hostility toward, the poor as freeloaders on hard-working people also more closely tracks European fascism than it does American founding principles and ideas. Part of the “smaller government” message of Tea Partiers, that I encounter in virtually every interaction, is some statement about how the left insists on taking money away from those who earn it to give it to those who are too lazy to work. This characterization is, of course, far removed from reality, in which poverty exists for a multitude of structural reasons, has far more to do with the chances of birth than with individual merit and effort, and involves tremendous suffering by the most innocent members of society, our children. But the complete absence of empathy, or of understanding of the realities of the problems we face, combined with antipathy toward intellectuals (and particularly empathetic intellectuals) who accept the social responsibility of seeking systemic ways to address those problems, makes our Tea Partiers far more analogous to Fascists than to American Revolutionaries.
But certainly the Tea Partiers aren’t totalitarians; that would seem to be the exact opposite of what they stand for, right? Wrong. Opposition to government per se, and liberal use of the word “liberty,” do not necessarily imply a movement that is not essentially totalitarian, even if unbeknownst to the majority of its adherents. The Russian peasants that facilitated the Boleshevik revolution were trying to oust an oppressive government, not usher one in. And they made the same exact mistake that our modern Tea Partiers do, and that our American Revolutionaries did not: They look more to the promises of people who claim to represent their interests, than to the careful design of social institutions, to ensure that their interests are being addressed.
The Tea Partiers ignore completely what social scientists call “the agency problem,” the challenge of aligning the interests of agents (elected officials) with those of the principal (those they represent), instead happily and haplessly investing all of their faith in those who claim to be their champions. They are, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff noted in his book The Political Mind, actually inherently driven more by an authoritarian ideology than by one committed to liberty, though they clothe that authoritarianism in a professed commitment to liberty.
The Tea Party does not object to government as an oppressor of the downtrodden, but rather as an ally of the downtrodden, perceiving this commitment as an infringement on the advantages enjoyed by those who have drawn an at least adequate lot in life. It is a movement heavily funded by corporate wealth, which sees in this opposition to an empathetic government a population that will complacently allow corporate America to continue its advance in the recapture of government as an agent of the most privileged at the expense of the least privileged, rather than as an agent of the populace as a whole, striving to preserve the robustness of our economy, while addressing the demands of increased equality of opportunity and sustainability.
What brought this comparison to mind today was an article in The Economist on Germany’s resurgence, and the angst associated with it due to Germany’s unavory mid-20th Century past (http://www.economist.com/node/17305755). As I was reading the description of the kinds of xenophobic, scape-goating attitudes that Germany has actually in recent times managed to exhibit to a far lesser rather than greater degree than many other nations (most notably The United States), but that any trace of which still raise concerns among Europeans about a resurgent Germany, I couldn’t help but think “if those trends concern you, they should concern you where they are currently most robust: in The United States of America.”