One point about the tea party movement is not in dispute: it was triggered on the morning of February 19, 2009, by Rick Santelli, a correspondent for CNBC. Speaking from the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, Santelli responded to a question from his studio anchors by denouncing a proposed $75 billion government program to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. As the traders around him began to look up from their computers to listen, then to applaud and cheer, Santelli turned to them and asked, "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage who has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" Getting more worked up, Santelli said, "We're thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July. All of you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing it."
Santelli, it turned out, didn't need to do any organizing, or to wait five months for people to take action. The Tea Party movement was born. CNBC and YouTube viewers launched websites and Facebook pages within hours of the rant heard 'round the world. Within weeks, a new factor in American politics emerged, a "right-wing street-protest movement," according to the liberal journalist Michael Tomasky, something unprecedented in modern American politics. Following Santelli's famous outburst the Tea Party movement "materialized…out of nowhere," Tomasky reported forthrightly but regretfully, "with an intensity no one would have predicted." As one consequence, "the degree to which self-identified independent voters flipped on health care…from support to opposition, in part because of the toxic town-hall protests, was astonishing."
What are the questions about the Tea Party movement that remain open for debate? Those would include…everything else. Depending on which analyst you favor, the movement is either "part of a very big wave" or already starting to burn itself out. The Tea Party activists are either reviving the nation's founding principles, or the anti-intellectualism, extremism, and paranoia said to be constantly latent in American politics. Its members are either the direct descendants of the Ross Perot voters from the 1992 presidential campaign, or have little in common with them. It is a spontaneous grassroots phenomenon, or an example of political "Astroturf." It poses grave dangers for the Republican Party, or is the GOP's salvation. The Tea Party movement has lost interest in the culture wars and social issues that energized conservative politics for the past 45 years, or is composed of people who haven't yielded an inch on those questions.
The lamest answer on these points is also the wisest: time will tell. An unforeseen burst of political engagement, still in the process of sorting itself out as it enters its second year, is not going to reveal its ultimate character and goals so readily. The phenomenon is especially hard to describe precisely because it is so decentralized, a movement with "no headquarters to visit, no chairman, no written platform and no chosen candidate," as Time magazine observed.
Cult and Anti-Cult
It's not too early to venture some tentative explanations, however. The Tea Party movement caught fire one month after Barack Obama's inauguration. It is, in part, a reaction to the Obama presidential campaign and its accompanying cult of personality. It is also a reaction to the Obama Administration's effort to keep the financial crisis from going to waste by using it to enact an agenda of "shock and awe statism," to borrow a phrase from Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana.
There are clear signs, though, that the Tea Party movement cannot be summed up by its relation to the dawning of the Age of Obama. It emerged at the culmination of the long project to supplant a ruling class based on social position and wealth with one based on brains. The new meritocrats who direct our government, economy, and national discourse are being disparaged at Tea Party meetings and blogs by the people whom they govern. This is an important, unexpected development—the democratic repudiation of the consequences that have followed from the successful effort to democratize entrée to the nation's highest circles of power.
To begin with, the contemptuous and sometimes ugly denunciations of Obama by his detractors are the counterpart to the rapturous and sometimes creepy testimonials to Obama by his supporters. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and Newsweek, for example, has analyzed the health care debate in a series of articles that have been highly opinionated but also highly informed. He is, in other words, neither a lightweight nor a loon. It's all the more telling, then, that Klein was able to write an assessment of Obama's victory speech after the Iowa caucuses in January 2008 that became as famous as it was fatuous:
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair…. Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.
Or, as a less politically sophisticated but no less besotted analyst, actor Will Smith, said last year, "Barack Obama as an idea marks an evolutionary flash point for humanity."
The Tea Party movement presents itself as an anti-cult not only because many people in it find such extravagant praise of a still unproven politician absurd and insufferable, but because of increasing evidence that Obama himself believes, like Mae West, that too much of a good thing is wonderful. As political scientist James Ceaser recently observed,
Only the most rare of persons, after being the object for over a year of such unrelenting adulation, could have resisted the temptation to think that the world revolved around him. Barack Obama is clearly not that person. His speeches and remarks are filled with references to himself in a ratio that surpasses anything yet seen in the history of the American presidency.
The hyper-competitive types who survive and triumph in campaigns that become more grueling every four years do not climb that long hill in order to serve a term or two as hold-the-fort, B+ presidents. As soon as they've bested all their living political opponents they begin competing against their dead predecessors in the historical greatness derby.
Barack Obama has an especially bad case of Rushmore Fever. Simply by being the first black president he becomes a monument in America's tortured racial history. But that is only the prelude. The goal of his presidency, recently summarized by David Brooks in the New York Times, is to "usher in the third great wave of Democratic reform," after FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, "transforming health care, energy, education, financial regulation and many other sectors of American life."
As Charles Kesler explained in these pages ("The Audacity of Barack Obama," Fall 2008), the key to this transformation is the replacement of cynicism with hope. Purging cynicism will transform our political process, making it solicitous toward ordinary citizens rather than powerful insiders. Those transformed processes, in turn, will lead to dramatically better and fairer policy results, as the people's elected representatives openly conduct the people's business.
In a debate in January 2008, for example, Obama described how his administration would approach health care reform: "Not negotiating behind closed doors, but bringing all parties together, and broadcasting those negotiations on C-SPAN, so that the American people can see what the choices are, because part of what we have to do is enlist the American people in this process." He repeated this promise several times during his campaign. When delivered in speeches, it always drew loud cheers.
A moment's reflection, however, will show that any such promise is unachievable. The moment you begin to televise negotiations over a major piece of legislation, the proceedings you televise cease to be negotiations. They become, instead, campaign speeches and posturing (as we saw in February 2010 during the president's health care summit with congressional leaders). The real negotiations move to a room without TV cameras and microphones.
Any promise that can't conceivably be kept is one that never should have been made. There are only two possibilities—either the president never understood the futility of televising health care reform negotiations, or he always understood it. It's as hard to know which explanation is true as it is to decide which is worse. If Barack Obama spent two years campaigning to be president without doubting the feasibility of negotiating important public policy on a television show, then he really was as callow and ill-prepared as Hillary Clinton's "3 a.m. phone call" ad alleged.
If, on the other hand, he always knew that health care reform legislation would not and could not be hammered out on television, then Obama is not only brazen in ways that compare impressively to other people in his line of work, but stands condemned by the far more exacting standards by which he invited the voters to judge him. In November 2007 at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines, Obama gave a speech that propelled him to victory in the Iowa caucuses and, from there, to the nomination and the White House. He spoke of the need to address voters "who've lost trust in their government, but want to believe again" by realizing that "telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do." If Obama's inner council understood all along that the candidate's risible C-SPAN promise would have to be shunted aside after the inauguration, then his campaign was the latest validation of the Code for Modern Living: every time you're ready to conclude that you've become too cynical, the world finds a way to teach you that the real problem is that you haven't been cynical enough.
At a similar, I'm-not-like-all-the-others moment in his courtship of the electorate, Obama made a point in his Denver acceptance speech of denouncing political opponents who "claim that our insistence on something larger, something firmer and more honest in our public life is just a Trojan Horse for higher taxes." The Democratic nominee, of course, made another campaign commitment on that subject, as categorically and frequently as he promised to televise health care negotiations. "I can make a firm pledge," candidate Obama said two months before the election. "Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes." All of 15 months later, President Obama told a BusinessWeek interviewer that he would have to be "agnostic" on the question of raising taxes on families making less than $250,000 per year if his new commission on reducing the deficit would have any chance to make a difference:
What I can't do is to set the thing up where a whole bunch of things are off the table. Some would say we can't look at entitlements. There are going to be some that say we can't look at taxes, and pretty soon, you just can't solve the problem.
The question, again, is whether candidate Obama was dim-witted or cold-blooded. Did he really not understand—was there no economist on his campaign staff to help him understand—that all the expensive new things he promised government would do could not possibly be reconciled to his promises to exempt 97% of the population from any new tax increases? Or was he agnostic all along about his solemn promises, winking in the mirror and chuckling before going out to intone them to the crowds of supporters who stood, cheered, and wept as they beheld, at last, a politician personifying change they could believe in?
A candidate determined to tell the voters what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear would, by contrast, acknowledge—explicitly, repeatedly, and forcefully—the fiscal reality that will dominate American politics until the last baby boomer's ashes are scattered at Woodstock: our government has promised its people entitlement benefits that exceed, by several GDP percentage points, the tax revenues it has prepared those people to surrender. Realistically, the only way to square our spending promises with our taxing promises is to break the one or the other, or to bend them both, arriving at some politically feasible and economically sustainable mixture of spending cuts and tax increases. Having gotten comfortable in the White House, Obama has started to get comfortable directing the people's attention to this grim, inescapable reality.
The problem is that cleaning up the nation's balance sheet is a lamentably pedestrian mission for a world-historical figure. Worse still, getting out from under the debts created by the New Deal and Great Society programs works against Obama's efforts to launch his own ambitious, third-wave Epoch of Hope. The president's ungainly response to this dilemma has been to concentrate the nation's mind on figuring out how to pay for all the unaffordable promises that were made decades ago…right after one more batch of unaffordable promises is added to the existing stack of IOUs. In his inaugural address Obama promised a "new era of responsibility," and then made clear in his first months in office that it would commence only after another long, indulgent season of irresponsibility.
Too Good to Be True
Obamanauts in politics and the press would, of course, dispute this characterization. In the time-honored tradition of Democratic rhetoric, new programs never merely cover their costs, but are lauded because they will "pay for themselves many times over." Thus, President Obama insisted that he will not sign a health bill that adds "even one dime to our deficit over the next decade," after which it "must also slow the growth of health care costs, while improving care, in the long run." Indeed, not only can we afford to extend health protection to tens of millions of uninsured people, we cannot affordnot to. In a speech to Congress on February 24, 2009 the president said that securing "quality, affordable health care for every American" was "a step we must take if we hope to bring down our deficit in the years to come" (emphasis added).
The Tea Party movement did not ignite that quickly—we may safely assume that President Obama's nationally televised address had other purposes than putting out the fires Rick Santelli had lit five days earlier. There's an important connection, however, between the "Who says you can't have it all?" logic employed by the Obama Administration to sell its health care initiatives, and the swift, categorical repudiation of his agenda by the Tea Party movement. Obama's difficult first year in office suggests the limits to what soaring rhetoric can accomplish once the campaigning is over, and even its drawbacks for selling policies and building coalitions. No matter how lucidly he phrases the point, or confidently he delivers the arguments, the president has not been able to talk citizens out of their skepticism about policy proposals that appear, to the untrained eye, beset with contradictions. In August 2009 Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in Time that the "fatal flaw of Obamacare" was that the people simply did not understand the president's argument that our health care system was an "untenable" disaster that was "bankrupting" our families, businesses, and government, at the same time he was promising that his sweeping changes would permit every American who is "happy with your plan and your doctor" to continue those health care arrangements indefinitely.
Even Newsweek, which covered Obama throughout 2008 and 2009 with the same abrading skepticism Tiger Beat inflicts on the Jonas Brothers, recently said that it was "dodgy" for Obama to sell health care reform by claiming we can extend health insurance to more than 30 million people who lack it today while simultaneously and painlessly reducing the nation's overall health care bill. "It's possible to have universal health care," the magazine argued, "to have high-quality health care, to have the freedom to choose your own doctor, and to save money on health care, but it is not possible to do all those things at once…. The public right away sensed that the president wasn't leveling with them."
More than the fear that the Obama agenda is expensive or wrongheaded, this belief, that the policies are being advertised disingenuously and deceitfully, explains the growing difficulties facing Obama and the Democrats, and the rapid rise of the Tea Party movement. Those obstacles, however, did not dissuade Democrats, determined to use the large congressional majorities they built up in 2006 and 2008, from enacting their health care reform plan, despite its contradictions and the public's resulting antipathy. Republican Scott Brown's victory in the special election for the Massachusetts Senate seat held by a Kennedy family member or retainer since 1952 did not deter the Democrats, even though Brown emphasized his opposition to health care reform over all other issues in a state that Obama had carried with 62% of the vote 15 months earlier. Nor were the Democrats impressed by nine national public opinion surveys taken before Congress voted in March, all of which showed more Americans opposed to the health care plan than in favor of it, by margins ranging from 2 to 20% and averaging 10.5%.
To enact a sweeping new program despite such wide and deep opposition would, before 2010, have been unthinkable, or at least un-American. The Atlantic's Clive Crook favored Obamacare, yet found its victory remarkable and troubling. This was how European governments behaved, he wrote, but not American ones:
Germany's government abolished its currency and forced the euro on a country that was opposed to monetary union throughout, saying, "You are wrong. We know better. We will do this regardless, and you will come to like it." Can you imagine such a thing happening in the U.S., I used to ask?
Our Meritocratic Masters
The Tea Party scorn for the president's promises that all his transformative plans won't hurt a bit is about Obama, but also about something bigger. The voters are particularly unreceptive to presidential promises that sound too good to be true, because they have lived to regret listening to other such promises. Those promises were made by leaders of the new meritocracy, the one described by Brooks, in his comic sociology mode, as the "valedictocracy," populated by "Achievatrons" who "got double 800s on their SATs."
Without judging the validity of its complaint, Brooks asserts that the Tea Party movement is made up of people who "are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form a self-serving oligarchy—with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation."
We can be less impartial. The sociological but not very comic reality is that Brooks's Achievatrons wound up being distrusted by millions of their countrymen the old-fashioned way—they earned it. Our new meritocratic masters have been more conspicuously smart than wise. They know a lot, but don't know what they don't know. Their self-regard as the modern Americans who are the "natural aristocrats" Jefferson looked for has left them with an exaggerated sense of their own noblesse, and a deficient awareness of their corresponding oblige. Their expectation that the rest of us will be deferential to their expertise, like citizens of European nations that are social but not especially political democracies, has triggered the Tea Party backlash, and the resurgence of the "Don't Tread on Me" spirit.
As a result, eloquent promises about how government can be expanded to the benefit of all while taxes are increased only for a very few, and how ingenious new programs can make health care simultaneously more extensive and less expensive, are setting off alarms. These assurances—that when common sense tells us that something isn't possible while expert analysis tells us that it is, our common sense is the thing that needs to be adjusted—sound ominously familiar. Wasn't it just the other day that brainiacs with MBAs were telling us that, no, it was not dangerous for people with modest incomes to purchase expensive houses with zero-down, adjustable-rate mortgages? Since we didn't go to Wharton and weren't conversant with the esoteric innovations in financial derivatives and securitization that had taken the risk out of taking risks, we didn't know enough to set aside our unfounded fears that all this highly leveraged borrowing would end badly.
Sometimes the valedictocracy's repudiation of common sense works in the opposite direction: expert analysis shows how things that sound attainable to most people, largely because they were attained routinely for many years, are in reality extraordinarily difficult. Any nation worthy of the name has to defend its territorial integrity, for instance. Doing so includes securing its borders and making clear, consequential distinctions between what will be expected from and by its residents based on whether they are citizens, legal aliens, or illegal aliens. For most of its history, America was not baffled or overwhelmed by the imperative to discharge these fundamental responsibilities. In recent decades, however, the bright lines on the map and in the law that distinguish our country and people from others have become mysteriously blurry and unenforceable.
One effect of this newfound incompetency is that those who are least like the Achievatrons—people who didn't go to college or even finish high school—are forced to compete in the domestic as well as the global labor market against foreign workers. One cause of it is that Achievatrons know the names of Tuscan villages that haven't been discovered by tourists but don't know the name of a single person who really needs a job at a meat-packing plant or cleaning hotel rooms. And because they don't know any such Americans they find it easy to conclude that there are no such Americans, leaving us no choice but to import the labor we need for those tasks. The resulting analytical framework renders illegal immigration a victimless crime, since the only jobs immigrants take are ones for which no American citizen can be hired. Paul Krugman, of all people, has disparaged this consensus, labeling as "intellectually dishonest" the canard that "immigrants do ‘jobs that Americans will not do.'" To the contrary, "The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants."
Whether considering claims that it is possible for the government to do much more than common sense would suggest, as in health care, or much less, as in immigration, the meritocracy's magic word for framing how the nation must deal with its problems is "comprehensive." For one thing, comprehensive reforms give maximum scope for the valedictocracy to implement sweeping changes based on recent academic findings. In June 2009, for example, the Council of Economic Advisors cited studies by the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in a report claiming that "nearly 30 percent of Medicare's costs could be saved without adverse health consequences." Moreover, if the changes that would capture those wasted expenditures could be applied to all health care outside of Medicare, the result would be to reduce health care spending from 18 to 13% of GDP. It was left to the libertarian blogger Virginia Postrel to "wonder why a report that claims that Medicare is wasting 30 percent of its spending thinks it's making a case for making the rest of the health care system more like Medicare." In other words, if we are wasting 30% of our Medicare outlays, why don't we apply a new set of ambitious reforms to Medicare first, and see whether or not they work, rather than just assume they'll work and apply them to the entire health care system?
To Postrel's sensible question, Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, replied that reforming Medicare before moving on to the rest of the health care system was politically impossible. The American Association of Retired Persons, according to Orszag, had made clear that the only way it would tolerate "aggressive" and "significant changes" in Medicare would be in return for expanded health care coverage. It will be noted that the changes Obamacare promised were never presented as being aggressive, or even all that significant. In a July 2009 press conference, for example, the president tried to reduce the issue's complexities to simple terms the rest of us could understand: "If there's a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price for the thing that's going to make you well?"
The campaign for Obamacare will continue after its enactment, due to its unpopularity. The early indications, however, are that Democrats won't alter the public relations strategy that made their reforms so unpopular in the first place. After the bill passed, Clive Crook called "an insult to one's intelligence" both Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that reducing Medicare's outlays would improve its performance and President Obama's that insuring 32 million more Americans was, first and foremost, a way to reduce health care spending.
Comprehensiveness serves another meritocratic need. When the unenlightened want changes the Achievatrons don't, and vice versa, insisting that comprehensive reform is the only path forward has the effect of stipulating that changes the masses want cannot be disaggregated from, and are going to be held hostage to, changes the valedictocracy has decided are necessary. Securing the nation's borders and enforcing its immigration laws, accordingly, is not "viable" as a stand-alone option. It can only work, reform advocates have stated over and over, as part of a package that "normalizes" the status of "undocumented" workers, giving them a way "out of the shadows" and toward full citizenship. As with health care, the notion that we can address one issue and then another, taking our bearings by analyzing the practical consequences of incremental steps rather than implementing entire systemic theories, is ruled to be somehow out of order.
The meritocratic fallback position, when the package deal doesn't fly, is to comply with the popularly demanded policy reforms in the most complicated way possible, as opposed to the most direct way. If you didn't know better you'd almost think they were trying to sabotage the policy measures they opposed but couldn't thwart. Thus, complaints that the border between Mexico and America was intolerably porous led to an elaborate project for an electronic "fence" relying on radar, cameras, and satellite signals. The director of the project at the Department of Homeland Security recently told theLos Angeles Times, apparently with a straight face, "It was a great idea, but it didn't work." While Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered "a department-wide assessment" of the project, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group, says, "Instead of spending a lot of time reassessing, they should get out there and do the sorts of things we know work effectively to get control of the border, such as double fencing and more manpower."
Disrespectful and Ineffectual
The disjunction between the Achievatrons and the middle-of-the-bell-curve masses does not replicate the divide between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives. Immigration, for example, is a divisive and tricky issue within the coalitions of both the Left and the Right. And though Wall Street has remained predominantly Republican as graduates of the best business schools have replaced sons of the best families in the corner offices, Democrats are far from a beleaguered or trivial minority. After leaving the Clinton White House in 1998, for example, Rahm Emanuel took a sabbatical from politics to be a managing director for the investment firm Wasserstein Perella. Emanuel felt he "needed money so that wouldn't be a problem while he was doing public service," his brother told Fortune magazine. Two years and $16 million later, problem solved; Emanuel left investment banking to run for Congress from Chicago, where he served until becoming President Obama's chief of staff.
The president's own place within the transformed American class structure is equally interesting. He is a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law School, married to a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law. His mother had a doctorate in anthropology, his father was a Harvard-trained economist, and the grandmother who raised him in Hawaii was a bank vice president. John Judis of the New Republic notes, "After graduating from law school, [Obama] joined a prestigious Chicago law firm with offices just off Michigan Avenue. In 1991, he began teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He was chair of a Chicago branch of the AnnenbergFoundation."
Had it been important for Obama to retain his ties to working-class Chicago after he decided to quit community organizing, he could have gone to law schools in the city like Kent or John Marshall. Instead, writes Judis, he chose educational and career paths that differentiated him from "a working- or middle-class American for whom being a civil rights lawyer or professor or politician is at best a passing fantasy." The gulf is as hard to traverse in the other direction:
Once out of law school, Obama lived and worked over the next decade in a gray area between the very upper reaches of professional America and the country's managers, owners, and rulers. He didn't just have access to more money and live differently from ordinary Americans; he possessed power and authority that they didn't have. He was of a different world, even if as a politician he would occasionally visit theirs.
Obama, then, comes naturally by his detachment from the people he governs. It was at a fundraiser in San Francisco in April 2008 that he uttered his famous remarks about bitter Americans who cling to guns and religion. In context, the remarks show him to be more sympathetic than disparaging, but trying, as well, to make sense of the inner life of an exotic tribe for a gathering of fellow anthropologists who are likewise unfamiliar with its outlook and folkways:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
The Tea Party movement's grievance against the Eternal Valedictorians cannot be reduced to the lingering grudges of those who took a remedial class here and there against those who enrolled in Advanced Placement Everything. Obama got it basically right in San Francisco before he got it gruesomely wrong. A leadership class that actually improved ordinary Americans' security and opportunities would be forgiven condescension worse than Obama's. It's when the people running the country are both disrespectful and ineffectual that folks get angry.
That anger will culminate in the replacement of America's "entire political establishment," Herbert Meyer, an intelligence official in the Reagan Administration, recently argued on the conservative website, American Thinker. The Tea Party movement, driven by the belief "that character is more important than personality, that education isn't the same thing as judgment, and that expertise without common sense is dangerous," will spearhead the replacement of the existing governing cohort with "a wholly new establishment," wrote Meyer.
Government of the People
If this is indeed what the Tea Party movement achieves, or even attempts, it will count as one audacious switcheroo, especially since it's not clear that America has a relief establishment warming up in the bullpen. The country's last establishment swap saw the replacement of what the journalist Nicholas Lemann called "the Episcopacy" with the meritocracy. It was, importantly, a revolution from above. "From the 1880s to the 1960s," in David Frum's useful summary, "the American governing elite was drawn from the distinguished families of New England and New York, promoted by friendships and family connections to the high offices of the land." The Episcopacy had a strong sense of its social obligations, which culminated in the realization that its aristocratic position in a democratic nation was anomalous and ultimately untenable. As recounted by Lemann in The Big Test (1999) and Geoffrey Kabaservice in The Guardians (2004), the Episcopacy's final public service was to commit mass-suicide. It intentionally transformed famous colleges from finishing schools for gentlemen into institutions that vetted bright, talented kids from throughout the social order, then equipped them with the training and, equally important, the self-assurance necessary to handle the country's highest responsibilities. As a result, writes Frum, today's "governing class is a meritocratic elite. For most members of this elite, the decisive event in their lives was the arrival in the mail of an acceptance packet from a great university."
If the Tea Party movement wants a new establishment to replace the Achievatrons, it's going to find that the current establishment, unlike the Episcopacy, is not the least bit conflicted about its right to run the country. As the late Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites (1995), "Meritocracy is a parody of democracy…. Social mobility does not undermine the influence of elites; if anything, it helps to solidify their influence by supporting the illusion that it rests solely on merit." The Eternal Valedictorians don't suffer fools gladly, and are quick to conclude that anyone who disagrees with them is a fool. Questions about their judgments are challenges to their intelligence and expertise, which, in turn, form the entire basis for their vast self-regard and the privileged, powerful lives they lead. According to Lasch:
When confronted with resistance to [their] initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light—those who "just don't get it," in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.
Unlike the Episcopacy, then, the valedictocracy will not go quietly, and it will not groom its successor. Before settling on the convulsive course of evicting the Achievatrons from their positions of power, the Tea Party movement would be well-advised to continue reflecting on whether America's problem is this establishment or an establishment. An alternative reading of what the Tea Party movement does and should want is not a better establishment but a less autonomous establishment, subject to the checks and balances of a re-engaged citizenry and a re-invigorated Constitution that constrains its discretion. Steven Hayward identified the problem in the first volume of The Age of Reagan (2001):
The premise of the administrative state is that our public problems are complicated, with"no easy answers," whose remedy requires sophisticated legislation and extensive bureaucratic management…. But the creed of the administrative state makes the idea of citizen self-government seem quaint or obsolete, and it causes our government to be remote and esoteric to average citizens.
Few would endorse this desiccation of republicanism in principle, but many Americans might be willing to accept it in practice—if the clerisy managing our administrative state were actually handling our complicated problems with a degree of success commensurate to their status and power. When, however, our elites are better at being elitist than being effective, outsourcing our governance to them loses all appeal. That is why, according to another writer for American Thinker, Larrey Anderson, the essence of the Tea Party movement is "populist Constitutionalism." Whatever their other differences, its "divergent groups agree that the federal government has, over the last several decades, stepped further and further outside of the bounds of the Constitution."
A Visible Destination
The Tea Party movement, thus understood, has a natural affinity with, if you'll permit a parochial observation, the Claremont Institute, which antedates the movement by 30 years, and was created to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. This orientation means the Tea Party movement has the potential to be a vessel for a conservatism committed to conserving political blessings that are unqualifiedly American. What's more, implicit in the project of the political restoration of a rightful authority is the identification and defeat of the ideas and practices that have wrongfully usurped those founding principles. To this end, scholars such as Ronald J. Pestritto and Matthew Spalding, both Claremont Institute fellows, have painstakingly shown how 19th-century progressivism made 20th- and 21st-century liberalism both possible and dangerous.
The Tea Party movement has before it, then, a principled and intellectually coherent project. A visible destination can do very much to help a political movement navigate the treacherous ground before it—but only so much. Despite liberalism's contradictions and deceptions, "You've got a problem? We've got a program!" remains politically seductive. Barry Goldwater's alternative, "You've got a problem? We've got a philosophy!" still looks, however, like the phrase to launch a thousand concession speeches. A conservative candidate who recently got to give a victory speech was Bob McDonnell, the Republican elected governor of Virginia in November 2009. The key, as one party strategist explained to Ramesh Ponnuru, was that McDonnell was able to "finish the sentence" by presenting a "very vigorous policy agenda." So, "Instead of just saying that we have to keep taxes and spending low, and thus pleasing conservatives…McDonnell explained how these policies would create jobs and ‘plug the hole in Richmond.'"
Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations explains the resulting tension, the one the Tea Party movement must resolve if it is to succeed. The movement's "ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help' of experts and professionals." We've delegated responsibility for our "core institutions"—public schools and colleges, health care, finance, retirement, government at all levels-to those experts, and all of them "cost more than we can pay," but "don't do what we need."
At the same time, the things that the governing structures now perform badly are things that really do need to be done, and done well. Conservatives have to finish the sentence, to explain how shrewdly delimited government can succeed where sloppy, undisciplined government has failed. Conservatives could offer "innovative leadership" with the help of a "new cohort of smart policy wonks with a practical vision for the future," according to Mead. The political problem is that the Tea Party populists may not accede to a conservative agenda set by a different set of experts and professionals. Populists "want big and simple ideas," Mead writes, not "intricate, finely crafted reforms whose beauty can only be appreciated by a few." If there's hope for a conservative coalition that overcomes those tensions, it resides in the constant awareness of a much bigger governmental and even civilizational threat—that the "dysfunction of the current system" will drive us "into a massive social and financial crisis."
The Tea Party mission can be described in another way. What's at stake in the war conservatives have declared on Obamacare is not only 18% of our economy, but 100% of our polity. If the anger over what the Democrats enacted, and the way they passed it, is replaced by acquiescence, America will have taken a big step toward having not only policies but political processes that are indistinguishable from Europe's. If the people who brought you Obamacare are not rebuked in the elections of 2010 and 2012, they, emboldened, will pursue further social transformations, regardless of popular opposition. Our ruling elites will eagerly adopt their European counterparts' posture toward the people: You are wrong. We know better. We will do this, and you will like it. To permit Obamacare to stand is to permit such an assertion to go unchallenged, and guarantee that it will become routine. By their passivity, the people will be complicit in their own disempowerment. As Frederick Douglass said in 1857, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them."