Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Philosophy of Tea Partyism

Philosopher Professor J.M. Bernstein has a metaphysical take on the anger of Tea Party activists:
My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.
He goes on to oppose the notion that the individual and his or her rights have some sort of pre-existing reality, and to support the Hegelian notion that the individual as we understand it is a creation of social forces:
practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence.
Whatever the truth of the deep philosophical questions, I think there is something to Berstein's analysis of contemporary politics. Many people feel that their lives are under the control of mysterious entities and forces from outside: worldwide corporations, big government, international currency markets, and the like. They feel this as an attack on their desire to be independent. Some people react to this lack of control with anger.

But Bernstein is missing some more narrowly political considerations. The people most angry about things right now were a lot less angry when George W. Bush was President. He was one of them -- white, southern, conservative, folksy. Obama -- black, elitist, liberal, from a big city -- is not one of them, so having him as President increases their sense that they are controlled by outside forces. Also, nothing undermines people's sense of autonomy like not being able to find a job, and the fear of losing one's job can be pretty bad, too.

The metaphysical situation of we moderns is, I think, that we have very strong desires for autonomy and independence but live in a world in which many things about our lives are controlled by vast, impersonal forces and institutions we cannot influence and only vaguely understand. I agree that the kind of conservative populism expressed at Tea Party rallies is an expression of this conflict. It is not, though, the only possible such expression, and it also draws on other things, especially economic insecurity, racism, and a tradition of American conservative rhetoric.

1 comment:

David said...

I agree. It's striking that, when right-wing types are in power, leftists tend also to complain about denial of rights, the control held over them by huge outside forces, etc. But it's clearly very important to them which specific rights are being denied--the right to use marijuana, the right not to have to pray in school, etc. And it's clearly very important to the rightists that they see, not those rights, but other rights--their right not to have their taxes pay for abortions, their right to buy any weapon they wish--now under threat from Obama (remember, I'm talking about the rights the perceive to be under threat). This left-right divide is simply not allowed for in Bernstein's philosophy. If he says it is merely a distraction, I can only reply I'm not convinced. The more abstract a political analysis becomes, the more self-indulgent and irrelevant it usually is.

After all, Confederates hated states' rights when they had to do with the rights of northern states not to return runaway slaves, and abolitionists hated federal power when it came in the form of, say, federal marshals apprehending runaways and fetching them back to their masters.

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes it's really about the cigar.