The Wilson Quarterly

Populist movements of days past aimed to seize political power and use it for the benefit of “the people.” Not so with today’s Tea Party, observes Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla. It seeks to neutralize, not use, political power. It has only one thing to say: “I want to be left alone.”

Such “radical individualism” is not new to the American scene. It was the driving force behind both the 1960s-era shift to the left on social issues (sexual liberation, divorce, casual drug use) and the ’80s-era move to the right on economic issues (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). Today’s Tea Partiers, “the new Jacobins,” as Lilla calls them, are characterized by two classic American traits: “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.”

These attitudes drive the large numbers of Americans who choose to homeschool their children, who refuse to get vaccinated, and who spend “over $4 billion a year on unregulated herbal medicines, despite total ignorance about their effectiveness, correct dosage, and side effects.” Lilla writes, “Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead; they second-guess their cardiologists, then seek out quacks in the jungle. Like people in every society, they do this in moments of crisis when things seem hopeless. They also, unlike people in other societies, do it on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.”

Lilla suspects that the Tea Party will peter out after a few symbolic victories, because it has “no constructive political agenda. . . . [It] only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis.” But though it may not last, its libertarian, anti-government underpinnings are here to stay.

THE SOURCE: “The Tea Party Jacobins” by Mark Lilla, in The New York Review of Books, May 27, 2010.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Generation Progress

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