Saturday, October 16, 2010

Constitutionalism versus Progressivism: Berkowitz on the Tea Party

Peter Berkowitz has written a terrific article in today's Wall Street Journal on "Why Liberals Don't Get the Tea Party." His article has a folksy tone but is rooted in solid history and political philosophy. He writes:

Highly educated people say the darndest things, these days particularly about the tea party movement. Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman got the ball rolling in April 2009, just ahead of the first major tea party rallies on April 15, by falsely asserting that "the tea parties don't represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They're AstroTurf (fake grass-roots) events."

Having learned next to nothing in the intervening 16 months about one of the most spectacular grass-roots political movements in American history, fellow Times columnist Frank Rich denied in August of this year that the tea party movement is "spontaneous and leaderless," insisting instead that it is the instrument of billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne criticized the tea party as unrepresentative in two ways. It "constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers," he asserted last month. This was a step back from his rash prediction five months before that since it "represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics," the tea party movement "will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections."

In February, Mr. Dionne argued that the tea party was also unrepresentative because it reflected a political principle that lost out at America's founding and deserves to be permanently retired: "Anti-statism, a profound mistrust of power in Washington goes all the way back to the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution itself because they saw it concentrating too much authority in the central government."

Mr. Dionne follows in the footsteps of progressive historian Richard Hofstadter, whose influential 1964 book "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" argued that Barry Goldwater and his supporters displayed a "style of mind" characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Similarly, the "suspicion of government" that the tea party movement shares with the Anti-Federalists, Mr. Dionne maintained, "is not amenable to 'facts'" because "opposing government is a matter of principle."

To be sure, the tea party sports its share of clowns, kooks and creeps. And some of its favored candidates and loudest voices have made embarrassing statements and embraced reckless policies. This, however, does not distinguish the tea party movement from the competition.

Born in response to President Obama's self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens' lives.

In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.

Read it all here.

Berkowitz blames university departments of political science and history for not teaching the principles of the American Founding and distinguishing them from the ideas of the Progressive Movement:

For the better part of two generations, the best political science departments have concentrated on equipping students with skills for performing empirical research and teaching mathematical models that purport to describe political affairs. Meanwhile, leading history departments have emphasized social history and issues of race, class and gender at the expense of constitutional history, diplomatic history and military history.

Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.

So Berkowitz' argument is that instead of teaching the plain fact that 20th century American history was a debate between the Constitutionalists with their commitment to limited government and the Progressives with their commitment to statist solutions to modern social problems, most contemporary universities teach from the progressive perspective. This means that they produce students (eg. Krugman, Dionne, Rich) who are unable to understand the true nature of the Tea Party movement. They see it though the highly biased, jaundiced lens of the enemies of the Founders: the Progressives. So they treat the Tea Party as a joke or a danger to democracy instead of coming to grips with the principles and ideas for which it stands.

The problem is acute for democracy because if the Progressives are incapable of grasping how much of the culture they themselves love and appreciate is the outgrowth of the principles being advanced by the contemporary Tea Party people, they are gullible targets for soft totalitarians who exploit their sentimental liberalism in the service of a hard-edged statism which will destroy what even the Progressives themselves love about America.

We see this, for example, in the odd phenomenon of Left-wingers fighting for the rights of radical Islam to have its way in the West even though the first thing Islamists will do when they come to power is to trample all over the causes the Left supposedly stands for.

One suspects that many leftists will be very unhappy when they finally succeed in creating a leftist society. That is very sad for them because it means that their lives are fundamentally incoherent.

1 comment:

Gordon Hackman said...

. . . a style of mind" characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.

I'm currently reading Melanie Phillips, "The World Turned Upside Down," and the irony is that she shows how, in our day, it is the "progressive" political left, not the right, who is aptly decribed by the above phrase.