I had hoped to be posting this weekend on a new book, The Promise, by my old friend and one-time student Jonathan Alter, but the book is so thorough and moves at such a relaxed pace (something I am enjoying, actually), that that will have to wait. It is really a portrait of the modern Democratic elite, composed both of my contemporaries and those about a decade younger (like Alter himself), and it does explain a lot about the failure of liberalism in the era of Boomer leadership, but I shall have to get further to have too much to say about it. Meanwhile I have been pondering the future in the wake of the elections, and particularly the role of the Tea Party, and although it is much too early to make any definite predictions, I would like to put forward a hypothesis as to what their role might be.
While the Tea Party undoubtedly benefited enormously from generous corporate support, it represents an authentic grass-roots movement, driven by fear, anger, and resentment. Much of it genuinely opposes the Republican establishment as well as the whole Democratic Party, and a terrible battle is brewing within the Republican Party to determine whether the nominee in 2012 will be Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin. (I would give Palin at least an even chance at this point.) The Tea Party is now strong enough in the House of Representatives to make real legislative trouble for the federal government, and a story in today's New York Times indicates that the new chief House investigator, Darrell Issa, plans extensive investigations of federal bureaucracies to uncover waste. The Tea Party is also rumored to contain powerful isolationist elements (led by Rand Paul, its leading Senate infiltrator) who might actually want to reduce the US role around the world. How far is this likely to go?
The answer, in my opinion, is not very far, at least with respect to actual results. The Tea Party is actually the first Boomer-led political movement since the protests against the Vietnam War (as opposed to social movements like the women's and gay rights movements), and is therefore long on outrage and vision and short on specifics. Its vision repudiates the last 80 years, if not the last century, of American history. And thinking about comparable movements in other lands, I am reminded on the one hand of the Parisian sans culottes during the French Revolution, and the German artisan movement during the revolution of 1848--two more or less radical groups defending what they saw as their way of life, who left relatively little imprint upon history.
The sans culottes represented the Parisian mob in the early 1790s. They hated aristocrats and thus initially were the shock troops of the middle-class Jacobins, led by Robespierre, but they were not really in sympathy with the Enlightenment or the modern world. Being artisans and urban workers themselves, they distrusted capitalist enterprise, which was in its infancy in France, and free markets. Their biggest economic demand was for a "just price" of bread. Like Tea Partiers, they wanted direct democracy. The German artisans in 1848 were in a similar position: they wanted political rights, but they also wanted to stop the march of free markets and capitalism that was going to destroy their way of life, and the middle class professionals in the Frankfurt Parliament that was trying to unify Germany shunned them.
The Tea Party, it seems to me, is in a comparable state of denial about the modern world. Big government remains a necessity, not an aberration. As their own equivocations show (see for example this exchange between Rand Paul and Eliot Spitzer), they have no plan actually to cut the federal budget significantly because they cannot significantly reduce the entitlements upon which their older supporters defend. They will be no more successful than the moribund left in reducing our presence abroad. And Palin herself, with her eye on the White House, is most unlikely to favor anything that would actually make corporate America--including the big banks--very angry. And thus, I predict, the Tea Party will have a fate similar to that of the Sans Culottes, whose leaders were guillotined by the Jacobins early in 1794, not long before Robespierre's own fall signalled the end of the radical phase of the French Revolution. They, like the radical Republicans in the late 1860s and early 1870s, will eventually be defeated without achieving their goals, and this in turn will mark the forging of a new American political consensus, one likely to last for a couple of decades.
Because the Tea Party can only offer investigation, rants and obstruction during the next two years, it is very likely to discredit itself. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate--which has pandered to the Tea Party without, for the most part, actually embracing it--is leery of a replay of the government shutdowns of the Gingrich era, which helped Bill Clinton on his way to re-election. There may be shutdowns all the same, but the leadership, I think, will be forced to bring them to an end fairly quickly. I expect some federal workers to be laid off and I expect my salary to be frozen--an equitable decision in itself, although less equitable since there are no comparable checks on the compensation of the Wall Street traders who got us into this mess. The government will obviously make no new efforts to create jobs, unemployment benefits may be allowed to lapse, and certain important infrastructure projects may well be cancelled. There will also be a renewed conservative onslaught on social issues in states like Kansas which are now totally in Republican hands. But although the Bush tax cuts now seem certain to be renewed in their entirety, the George W. Bush Administration pushed the tax cut frenzy about as far as it can go for the foreseeable future. Their achievement was, from their point of view a remarkable one. The great fortunes they created will dominate our political system for many years to come. They indeed shifted the political center even further to the right than Ronald Reagan did, and we Boomers will live with the effects of that change for the rest of our lives. But I suspect that as a practical matter, the conservative revolution has run its course, and the Tea Party will be disappointed.
The discrediting of the Tea Party will parallel the final discrediting of New Deal liberalism that has taken place over the last two years. Barack Obama has been a very moderate reformer (a subject for a later post), but Republican propaganda and the election results have now convinced the mainstream media (e.g. David Brooks) that he was too liberal for the American people. To judge from the way the White House is caving in on the tax cut issue, he himself may have reached this conclusion himself. In our last national crisis the New Deal initially discredited the extreme right, but the postwar reaction beginning in 1946 then discredited much of the Left, which had allied during the war with the Communist Party of the United States. We now seem ready to see the same drama played out in reverse. Liberalism seems ready to be proclaimed dead; the most militant conservatives will have to be sacrificed to create the new consensus--the consensus which, ironically, Barack Obama dreamed of recreating. His wish may yet come true.
Indeed, it is possible that in 2017, Barack Obama will leave office having played the role of the new U.S. Grant or Dwight Eisenhower, the man who actually put many of our partisan struggles behind us. That will be even more likely if Sarah Palin wins the Republican nomination and loses, as I am inclined to think she probably would. That in turn would spur the Republicans to become somewhat more respectable as well. None of this will be especially good for America. Unemployment will remain at levels that would never have been tolerated between 1946 and 1980; inequality will continue to increase; and the Millennial generation will have a very tough time establishing itself in secure employment. We will also, quite probably, remain mired in the Middle East. To judge from the post-civil war example, it could well be another thirty years before Congress seriously addresses the nation's real problems again. (Some states, in all likelihood, will revive activist government sooner than others.) But this is, as Strauss and Howe postulated, the rhythm of history. Liberalism seems to have lost this round of our great national struggles, and a period of quiet will be needed before battle lines can be redrawn and the struggle can resume with some hope of success. Let us hope that new foreign or domestic catastrophes will not usher in a further period of militance, which is likely to benefit the right once again.