The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Lee Harris looks at the Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals:

Intellectual critics of the Tea Party movement most often attack it for its lack of ideas, especially new ideas — and these critics have a point. But the point they are making reveals as much about them as it does about the Tea Party. Behind the criticism lies the implicit assumption that comes quite naturally to American intellectuals: Namely, that a political movement ought be motivated by ideas and that a new political movement should provide new ideas.

But the Tea Party movement is not about ideas. It is all about attitude, like the attitude expressed by the popular poster seen at all Tea Party rallies. Over the head of a hissing rattlesnake threatening to strike is inscribed the defiant slogan so popular among our revolutionary ancestors: “Don’t tread on me!” The old defiant motto is certainly not a new idea. In fact, it is not an idea at all. It is a warning.

If you are an intellectual, you can debate an idea, but how do you debate a warning? No evidence can be adduced to refute it. No logic can be introduced to poke holes in it. All you can do with a warning is to heed it or disregard it. “Don’t tread on me!” is not the deliberate articulation of a well-thought-out political ideology, but rather the expression of an attitude — the attitude of pugnacious and even truculent defiance. But take away this attitude, and what is left of the Tea Party? Not much that respectable intellectuals can respect.

First of all, there appears to be no consistent ideology or coherent set of policies behind the movement. Second, when intellectuals turn to examine some of the more radical proposals championed in Tea Party circles, such as the abolition of Social Security or the return to the gold standard, they can only shake their heads in dismay. These crank nostrums are well past their historical expiration date. They may elicit fanatic support from the politically naïve and unsophisticated, but no one who knows how the political world operates will pay them a moment’s notice. Reviving the gold standard in order to solve our economic problems is akin to reviving the horse-and-buggy to reduce our level of carbon emissions. It ain’t gonna happen, and those who put their energies into pursuing these quack solutions are at best engaged in the politics of make-believe.

It is little wonder that so many sober intellectuals find it difficult to take the Tea Party seriously, except to see it as a threat to the future of American politics. But anti-Tea Party intellectuals who are liberal have a luxury that their conservative brethren don’t have. Liberals can attack and deride the Tea Party without fear of alienating their traditional allies among ordinary voters. Indeed, their mockery of the Tea Party makes good sense to them politically. It is throwing red meat to their base. But conservative intellectuals are in a wholly different position.

As the Tea Party gains in momentum, conservative intellectuals are faced with a dilemma: to join the party or denounce it. If they join, they risk losing their status as respectable public intellectuals. If they denounce the party, they risk losing influence over the traditional Republican base.


  1. David Foster says:

    I think we need to rethink the way in which the term intellectual is used. Many if not most of the people who like to refer to themselves as intellectuals seem to be using the term primarily as a claim to a status position rather than as a description of actual intellectual interests or activities. The medieval usage of the term clerks, referring to those who read and write for a living, whether priests or scribes, would seem overdue for a revival.

    I also observe that self-described intellectuals tend to reify ideas, i.e. to treat them as concretes. C.S. Lewis described how this phenomenon worked with his protagonist, a sociologist named Mark, in his novel That Hideous Strength:

    …his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow… he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I agree with the spirit of your comment — that we should take haughty intellectuals down a peg — but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call them intellectuals, and I don’t think it’s accurate to call them clerks. They are in fact intelligent and educated, and they are not simply paper-pushers. The problem is that they’re not half as wise as they suppose, divorced as they are from the consequences of their grand designs.

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