Michael Dorfman (USA)
The Americans have failed to live the way they used to live. President Obama has run for presidency under a time-worn motto of changes. He has actually told lower classes that refused to live as before that upper classes refuse to live as before too. The election of an Afro-American to be the President of the USA has been significant as a great change in the life of the country. However, the president has turned out to be not a revolutionary, but a conformist, a tough Washington politician who is wary about abrupt movements of any kind and who is trying to maintain the impression that nothing changes. Dissatisfaction with official Washington, with power in general, and social elites, as well, is rising in American community. Obama’s election has demonstrated the desire for changes of the majority of the Americans. The other part of the society – not a lesser one – is afraid of changes. This part’s reaction, the Tea Party, is the most radical movement in American social life. According to some polls, about 40 percent of the Americans support the movement.
After Obama’s election articles have appeared, entitled “Obama – the failed right revolution”; and radical attitudes in American society have grown stronger. Revolution is the situation when people lose trust not towards a party, or even ideology, but to the ruling elite. One may quote Lenin, who said that revolution is the situation when upper classes can not rule as before, and lower classes refuse to live as before any more. Just as Decembrists “woke up” Herzen, the Obama’s election woke up the Tea Party. Talking of Herzen, Lenin pointed out that “navigators of a storm are not the storm itself… The storm is the movement of the masses.” Moreover, a storm would not rise because of ideas – a social storm needs mood, energy, and fury of the masses. And the grapes of wrath are everywhere in America.
Lenin was a Marxist, but his teaching, Leninism, has not much in common with Marxism. Leninism is a theory and a practical instruction for taking and holding of power and is handy both for the left and the right, communists and capitalists, the black, the brown, and the green. Therefore, it is not surprising that a right-conservative author Lee Harris explains the idea of Tea Parties with a reference to the hegemony theory by a famous Italian communist author Antonio Gramsci, not with the reference to works by well-known conservative political technologists David Brooks and David Frum. The most well-known of Gramsci’s concepts is that of “social prestige”, which helps to understand a rapid growth of the Tea Party movement that does not bear any ideas but bears a great wrath potential instead.
The Tea Party, or as it is traditionally called, “the Boston Tea Party”, was a signal for the start of American Revolution. Seemingly absurd action of protest, when colonists destroyed the tea belonged to the British East India Company by throwing it into the Boston Harbor caused the rebellion in North-American colonies. The name of the Tea Party has first appeared at protest actions on April 1, 2009, on the last day when Americans may pass a tax statement. Americans protested against huge state expenses and taxes, in return of which an average American receives little. The action’s success has surpassed all expectations; thus a new radical phenomenon of American social life appeared – the Tea Party movement. This phenomenon can hardly be called a political party, for it does not have any hierarchy or centralized machinery. This is a decentralized movement of very different people.
I started my work for “East-West review” with a visit to the Republican Party conference. It was impressive indeed; however, the article “The Republican Party goes right” failed to reflect the impression of whole power of furious enthusiasm the participants shared. The word “revolution” was everywhere. A humble Texan doctor Ron Paul got the majority of votes at the meeting. Paul is a Republican outsider who has been waiting for his time to come for twenty five years. The Republican Party does not meet the requirements of its electorate. The majority of people have voted for the Republicans not because of their complicated ideas of fiscal discipline with the support of expensive military machine, the slogans of freedom with ban on abortions and gay marriages. The majority voted because the Republicans are not Democrats. Since Nixon’s victory in 1968 all Republican triumphs have been not due to ideas of their political platform but thanks to electorate who treated the word “liberal” as a curse.
Even more people did not vote at all. In the USA people participate in elections reluctantly, the number of votes rarely exceeds 50 percent of electorate. Now this electorate demands a cleansing within the Republican Party. They may continue supporting the Republicans, but not due to the Republican brand and only those who is ready to join the Tea Party.
The Tea Party has been stingingly criticized. Many conservative intellectuals have joined liberals in their criticism. However, the ironical criticism has missed the target. After all, it is axiomatic for intellectuals that a protest movement, especially revolution, is based on ideas. The Tea Party does not have any new ideas, but it has a furious anger. If one can criticize and refute ideas, then whether is it possible to criticize the public mood? Few considered the Tea Party to be legitimate. Arianna Huffington, the author and moderator of an influential liberal blog “Huffington post” stated the following after the party’s first meeting in Nashville (Tennessee): “…some of what’s fueling the movement is based on a completely legitimate anger directed at Washington and the political establishment of both parties. Think of the Tea Party movement as a boil alerting us to the infection lurking under the skin of the body politic.”
Anger and despair are true even if the measures proposed by the Tea Party are too utopian, or even beyond common sense. Official Washington does not want to notice the “boil” and shows a complete insensitivity to the feelings and aspirations of a large part of American people, whom Nixon has called the “silent majority”.
Under normal circumstances, the reaction of the Tea Party movement would perhaps not be a big problem for the elites. Under normal circumstances, the majority of Americans have trusted the political and business elites. Most Americans have been interested in their work, business, family, homes, cars, and favorite sports teams. Recently the electorate has demanded to give politicians more power to protect the country from the machinations of enemies. While the elite were doing their business and did not irritate people, did not allow any harsh outrage, an ordinary American preferred to be a spectator, not a participant of a political process.
The elites were not interested in political activity of the masses. They had many opportunities to spur political activity; for example, to make an election day a holiday. However, the elites preferred apolitical and apathetic people.
In the last 100 years American elites possessed the ability to solve problems in evolutional way without extremely rapid revolutions. The notion of revolution has moved over to pop culture, brands of rap music, fashion lines, and even portable bidet. Recently I have found in my mailbox an advertisement of such device with the slogan “Revolution in your toilet”.
The shock of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lack of training of special services revealed after the Katrina Hurricane, the inability to cope with illegal immigration, the fall in purchasing power of the dollar, lowering the standard of living, the financial crisis, the growth of government spending – all these factors catastrophically undermined the confidence in the elites’ competence. The Tea Party has been brewing in the bowels of right America for a long time. A remarkable book by Thomas Frank “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” identified the problem as early as in 2005. However, the failure of the Republican Party in the 2008 elections was needed for the protest to be spilled outside. For many people the assertion that things go bad for the United States has replaced the political agenda and even a creed. The masses of people who have never been politically active, started to gather, organize demonstrations, thinking of pushing their candidates and creating political platforms. Indifference has mysteriously given way to feverish activism. Apathy has given way to an almost religious zeal. Those who have believed in their elites and waited for right actions to be taken for generations, now believe that the elites would inevitably harm America. Trust has been replaced with suspicion, sometimes bordering on paranoia. The citizens’ desire to give more power to their elites has been replaced with the desire to “take away the power stolen from us.” The Tea Party has proved to be able to politicize people who have been apolitical until recently. This makes a well-functioning political game in America unpredictable.
Of the benefits of ignorance
Social psychology deals with the influence surrounding communities have on people. If people around us have a certain opinion on certain issues, their opinion will inevitably influence our own one. Most of us do not like conflicts with the environment. We are exposed to natural desire to smooth out our opinions in accordance with the views of those who surround us. This is especially important to us when we want to achieve some favorable attention. Social promotion presupposes acceptance (sometimes done subconsciously) of the views and opinions of those who hold higher positions in the social hierarchy. However, in almost any situation there is a subconscious desire for cognitive harmony with friends and colleagues. Our view is being drawn to the prevailing opinion of the group which we desire to belong to. Such conflict is familiar to those who belong to conflicting or hostile groups of people. For example, we are expected to reject the values and ideals of the one group to be accepted in the other group. Most of us avoid this problem by limiting communication with the group of people who share our views and tastes. Recently I listened to psychologists who were discussing the rebirth of Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The explanation was as follows: the need to constantly communicate with rich and influential people in order to find sponsors for a political campaign makes them adapt.
This strategy provides comfort; however, it also has its price. Those who limit communication by people who have same opinion inevitably become victims of an irresistible illusion. We are unaware of the extent to which our surrounding influences our beliefs and attitudes. Were we asked about the reasons of our adherence to any opinion, we would sincerely answer that we have come to such opinion ourselves. No one would say that his or her opinion about capitalism, the situation in the Middle East, or gay marriages has been formed under the influence of an elite, a favorite commentator in the media, a lecturer in political information, a priest at a church, from the conversations over a glass of beer, in a women’s club, or in an Internet forum. One would probably answer that each opinion is based on morality, as well as observations and thoughts.
In the eyes of “decent” society the Tea Party is, of course, not decent at all. David Brooks, a conservative intellectual and a columnist for The New York Times has contemptuously called them “Wal-Mart hippies”. Wal-Mart is the largest and cheapest retailer in the world. “Decent people” David Brooks’ regular readers, do not do shopping in Wal-Mart. People who shop in Wal-Mart, on the other hand, do not pay attention to articles in The New York Times. The reason is not in their disagreement with David Brooks or any other recognized author but in a simple fact that people who shop in Wal-Mart have never heard about them.
Everything in the world has its positive side. One can take advantage of ignorance. If a person is ignorant enough not to be familiar with those who form public opinion, he or she is also utterly indifferent the opinion they form. Activists of the Tea Party do not read influential New York Times; and if they read it, they would not treat it seriously. They do care about what kind of opinion about them is published there. Due to their “ignorance” they do not appreciate ideas and attitudes according to their prestige among the elites. They are influenced by their surrounding and judge according to their own logic. As for mainstream, “conventional” matters – they simply reject it.
The Tea Party activists have never belonged to the mainstream, and therefore do not see much of a problem, do not aspire to belong to it and remain indifferent to mainstream opinions and ideas. Political recruits of the Tea Party have been wary towards prestigious opinions of the elites even before. Therefore, it is easy for them to turn their anger against the elites. The Tea Party has willingly accepted everything which is considered intolerant, rude, provincial, and squeaky in a respectable company. They depict a rising rattlesnake on their flags. They use the slogan “Don’t tread on me!” No criticism coming from the ruling elite can shake them. All accusations of the absence of ideas, intelligence, and decency persuade them in the assumption that the country is run by rascals, who are hostile towards values of the common people, “the people like us.”
The Tea Party does not issue any challenges to the social order or the system of government. Its anxiety has been channeled into the dissatisfaction with the social order, because the elites are constantly strengthening their monopoly on creation and spreading of opinions and decide which ideas are to be treated favorably and which political candidates are to receive support. The followers of the Tea Party are extremely outraged by the fact that the elites impose the boundaries of acceptable public discourse, and other points of view remain unexpressed in “liberal mainstream.”
Recently I have driven a car with an American retiree. We have listened to NPR, a very popular liberal radio show. Among the listeners’ calls, there has been someone who has started with the following statement “I’ll tell you what we think about Obama and these black Marxists”. A moderator has rapidly disconnected this listener. My companion, who supports the Tea Party, has been outraged, as he has mentioned, by the fact that liberals do not allow Americans to say anything. I have switched to a rightist radio show where Obama has also been discussed at that moment: he has been described as a Muslim Marxist and an enemy of America. I have pointed out that there is still an opportunity to express an opinion. “This is not what I mean” answered my companion, “This is the radio for us, but that was the mainstream for everyone”.
Similarly, anti-Semitic or homophobic talk is not allowed in “mainstream media”. The Tea Party is confident that its followers are being deprived of constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of speech, that elites encroach upon their right to bear arms, their freedom of faith, parenting, and much more. Feeling of marginality and powerlessness becomes a powerful factor which moves the Tea Party. After all, they should not be prohibited. The elites have enough power neither to refute nor to consider dissenting opinions. They can simply ignore those dissenting opinions, and make sure that nobody ever notices them.
Source: East-West Review