Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Tea Party and the Politics of Negation

Before anything else, I’m a philosopher. I’m a philosopher before I’m an activist. I’m a philosopher before I’m an American citizen. In fact, you might say that philosophy subsumes all particular roles I have into itself, and the only thing I may say about myself is that I’m Socratic—questioning and reflective, cautious to assent too quickly to a point and modest in my making claims about the human condition. In truth, I think every American ought to be this way, but that’s another post for another time. For now, let me explain what I find so dangerously fascinating about the Tea Party movement.

With this temperament, I’m not too overly optimistic about Tea Party claims. The Tea Party is a miscellaneous category, the politics of all that is other, yet it’s come to solidify with a cluster of ideas and identities. It is born out of a populist rejection of moderate liberalism it seeks to exaggerate into the wretchedness of Marxism and socialism. Within its ranks, the Tea Party consists mostly of libertarians, disgruntled Republicans and upset rural Democrats. It has nothing new to say but like the Republicans during the Health Care debate, “No, no and no.” The make-up is also largely white. Philosophically, we might inquire behind the reasons that motivate such views, yet, I think such cohesion is rather impossible. That’s the very interesting philosophical point. Let me explain.

When a group comes together with disparate viewpoints, one can usually know what a group stands for. A collective representation of their particular vantage point is disclosed in the actions made on behalf of the group’s name. The actions taken are “authored” in the way that Hobbes’s Sovereign authorized the action of those that embody the will of the Sovereign. Moreover, such groups usually publish their core values, and when an American joins these groups, a practical knowledge of what they value can be known. However, the Tea Party movement is entirely grassroots. It is made of up of individuals with no identifiable leader. During media coverage of one of their rallies, this was a sticking point and reason given for the greatness of the Tea Party. With no identifiable leader and a pluralism of upset citizens, the group has no hierarchical values it shares. Instead, this plurality and grassroots structure dissolves any meaningful claim it can make as movement, and the only meaningful criticism can come from its members themselves.

Now, while this may seem highly unproblematic in a America so celebratory of its individualism, it means functionally the meaning of what is valued can only come from the member. One can, then, only say “I feel that X” or “I see it as Y.” The possibility of articulating a vision of political change is ruptured by no cohesion amongst the members. There might be a spectrum of upset individuals comprising the group to the point that many different criticisms are all coming at the President and his policies. The lack of a solid identity is not an advantage; there is no upshot to a group that can negate the politics of Washington. Even if there are solutions to be found within the Tea Party about a range of problems, which I doubt, the level of plurality manifests only within the negation since negation is the only way the plurality of the Tea Party members can be brought together in activism. And this is the danger of the Tea Party! They are unwise to their own nullity in action, and cannot therefore carry together any meaningful change since they have no vision to offer. Political power must arrange the world constructively in some fashion, not simply negate the status-quo.
The negativity in Tea Party politics obstructs them to the danger of populist political movements. Populist movements openly deny the complexity of a political situation and substitute a radically disconnected view to replace current practices. Some Tea Party candidates want a flat tax, say 15% across the board. Consider that 15% of a millionaire’s yearly income would be high, but not as high as say someone who makes $30,000 USD in a year. With the decrease in the mean of American household incomes, the amount normal people would pay under a flat-tax might equally be more damaging than having a gradual scalar tax that depends on income. Of course, this prediction is incumbent upon the continual state of income decline in the recession and the slow climb expected of our economic return to pre-2008 status. The very rural poor White American sitting around the various Tea Party rallies would pay more of what they did have than those at the top in this recession alone if income tax is changed to a flat tax. The Democratic solution to maintain an income tax based on income is more favorable to lower-income American households.

Another disconnected proposal that might surface is the dissolution of entire government agencies based on a libertarian impulse from the classical liberalism of such thinkers as John Locke. While I love the attention that philosophers get outside my classroom, I do not expect any productive solution from Locke to come forward. Locke abstracts human beings from the social conditions and environment. It privileges an atomism that is unrealistic. I’ll have more to say on these issues later.


Jesse M said...

One of the hardest things about having a background in philosophy is getting trained to think about your intellectual and moral commitments on the highest, clearest level possible, and then to discover that the rest of the world resolutely refuses to work that way. Or that thinking on that plane may help you understand the world, but it doesn't make it any better, so much as it brings its fundamental irrationality into relief.

If the Tea Party was willing to conduct an open discourse, and to advocate for actual policy reforms, I think they could actually be a positive force in American history. Maybe they really could help the government reduce its costs and increase efficiency, and maybe we could all find a way to re-integrate individualism into our political philosophy in a healthy way.

Unfortunately, in what seems to me a tragically and dangerously philistine manner, they lean on moral outrage as their sole tool for cohesion, and though this leads to a certain level of political power, it's a fundamentally unhealthy solidarity.

To echo your own sentiment: I can't really imagine any sweeping change the Tea Party might usher in. When some of them want to cut military spending, some want to increase it, some want to outlaw homosexuality, some want to get the government's hands out of peoples' personal lives... does anybody know what changes they'll actually enact in government policy?

My biggest fear is that when the dust clears, the morally-conservative, economically-permissive, isolationist, religiously-motivated policies of the tribal conservatives will emerge. That's where they get their momentum, isn't it? And those policies will lead us further down the road that we started on with Bush, which looks frighteningly like fascist, post-industrial, colonialist hegemony.

Carbondale Chasmite said...

Welcome Jesse M.

Yes, you're right. Philosophy does make one aware of one's moral commitments at the highest level. This is a source of agitation and perhaps cognitive strength. Yet, I want to share it with as many people as possible. But, I'm digressing.

I do not think that the classical liberalism of the Tea Party will do it much merit. It is stuck in a type of idolatry not of the Constitution per se, but the metaphysical background that led to the Founding Fathers. A static human nature? An atomism about self that denies community? the limits of rights theory to articulate concepts of right/wrong? A populism abandoned to the powers of moral assessment?