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.