I have of late been rethinking the meaning of the Tea Party to American politics. My first take was dismissive: this movement is the same type of Herderian nationalism that, last century, brought Hitler and his merry band of crazed wing-nuts to power in the early 1930s.
And there’s no denying that Herderian nationalism is a factor—and a dangerous one—in the Tea Party: authoritarian religion—in particular, a heretical form of Christianity, Christianism—is animating a significant number of Tea Partiers, and it’s scary.
But I’ve concluded recently that, while it’s important to worry about authoritarian impulses within the Tea Party movement—support for torture being an obvious one—it’s not the whole picture.
If one pans out, the bigger picture is this: the Tea Party’s chief energy comes from a love of liberty.
By love of liberty, I don’t mean a love for pluralism: white Christianist Tea Partiers quite obviously wish America was more 1950s-style homogeneous, and that blacks, liberals, Muslims, Hispanics, gays, and all other “weirdos,” would just go away. The typical Tea Partier is animated by his or her own liberty, not the liberty of others.
But that’s still enough to make the movement, on balance, positive, for its success makes it less likely, not more likely, that our country will ever lapse into outright fascism.
Why? Because Tea Partier liberty is conventionally unreasonable. It is the liberty of undergound men (think of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground here). It is, in other words, the kind of liberty that tests the boundaries of a free society: the liberty to believe, practice, and affiliate in ways that others—perhaps the vast majority of others—deem ridiculous.
And so Tea Partiers, for example, don’t want the government telling them what kind of cars or light bulbs are good because their chosen ethical concerns do not include energy efficiency. Maybe the rest of us think that Tea Partiers should include energy efficiency into their ethical system, but they don’t. They’ll choose their own ethical concerns, thank you very much. And Tea Partiers care about their own chosen affiliations only—not the ones the federal government wishes they would make. Tea Partiers want to define their own lives, not give this work to the federal government to do for them. And they want to teach their kids that gays are bad and evolution is false.
That’s Tea Partier liberty. It’s the liberty of the Israelites leaving off a national idol—the Pharoah—in pursuit of their own chosen and peculiar obsessions.
Thus, the energy that Tea Partiers bring to their fight for liberty, and their conventionally unreasonable and selfish assertions of self-determination, protects not just their own souls from unchosen encroachments, but your soul as well. They’re making it almost impossible for the federal government to pursue policies that so much as hint at Pharaoh-like national definition, conformity, and paternalism. And, by choking off the spigot of tax revenue to the government, and forcing it to deficit spend, they’re ultimately setting up conditions where the government will simply have to become smaller. And a smaller government is one which bears less power to define you.
That’s what the Tea Partiers are ultimately about: self-definition and self-determination. “Let my people go” (as Moses said to Pharaoh). They’re about getting the federal government as far out of their lives as possible. And in fighting for their own liberty, they’re inadvertently creating the conditions for your own.
So, kiss a Tea Partier (if he or she will let you), and say thank you. Notice the vibrant inner soul that spurs them on. Other countries need feisty and crazy underground non-conformists who are otherwise non-violent, and don’t have them. We do. And it’s one of the things that keeps Americans, psychologically, a mostly free and independent-thinking people, able to pursue their privately determined obsessions without much interference.
One of the blessings, after all, of being an American is that you can often forget that you are an American. It’s nice to be able to blow off the broad national narrative and focus on your own. And that’s what the Tea Partiers, for all their avowals of nationalism and patriotism, are about: the pursuit of their own interests. And in fighting for their right to focus on their own private concerns and to define themselves, they’re fighting for your right to do these things as well (even if they do not mean to).
In this sense, the Tea Partier’s agon—their Jacob-wrestling with Pharoah and their souls—is less about their wish to be Hitler and more about their wish to be Duran Duran:
But, you might object, what about the Tea Party’s slavish devotion to corporate agendas and Big Religion, and the conformity that these represent? Aren’t Tea Partiers just exchanging one Pharaoh for two others?
No, because such forms of conformity (attending a megachurch and shopping or working at Walmart) are choices, not obligations. Tea Partiers are protecting their souls from direct outside force (excessive taxation, regulation, regimentation, and unchosen goals). They’re about protecting their inner soul power, retaining control over it. They’re fighting the external other: Big Brother. Over all other concerns, Tea Partiers salivate to this question: Is my soul free?
It’s a good question. And it’s, ultimately, a liberal question (but one which liberals are more likely to worry about in relation to capitalism and religion, not the nanny state).
So, let’s join the Tea Partiers and ask the following questions together, shall we?:
- Do you have a free soul?
- Who’s trying to take it away from you?
- What are you doing to stop them?
- To whom does the future belong, and who are its enemies, really?