Friday, December 17, 2010

The Rise of the Tea Party as a Revolt Against Progressivism

In his terrific article "Obama and the Rhetoric of Progressivism," Peter Berkowitz discusses the way in which John Rawls' concept of justice as fairness has been utilized by the progressives.

To be sure, Rawls asserts that "justice as fairness is but one" of the many political conceptions of justice that deserve consideration in a liberal democracy. But he makes no such concession about fairness, which he takes to have a unitary meaning, and which most people equate with justice. Not only by equating his favored conception of justice with fairness itself, but also by demonstrating throughout his half-century career in academic philosophy a decided lack of interest in other opinions about justice, Rawls powerfully signaled that the progressive understanding of fairness was tantamount to justice itself.

A legion of second- and third-generation Rawlsians - today representing a major, if not the leading, school within academic political theory - developed a popular offshoot of the theory of justice as fairness they often called "deliberative democracy." Its purpose is to apply Rawls's theory of justice to practice. Many variants have been advanced, and the approach has been extended to international law and international relations. Elements of it can be seen in the academic writings of State Department Legal Counsel Harold Koh, who is former Dean of Yale Law School, and Director of the office of Policy Planning at the State Department Anne Marie Slaughter, former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. All versions respond to a common problem, develop a common solution, and embody a common conceit.

The professors' problem was that, as good progressives, they took pride in their democratic bona fides. But the policies - on abortion, affirmative action, welfare, taxes, human rights, America's responsibilities abroad, and others - that they regarded as dictates of justice frequently failed to command majority support. And unlike Croly, today's progressives are reluctant to proclaim, at least in public, that "the average American individual is morally and intellectually inadequate to a serious and consistent conception of his responsibilities as a democrat."

The professors' solution to the paradox of progressivism - how to reconcile a professed commitment to greater democracy with a powerful conviction, in conflict with the preferences of the people, that justice requires more centralized government and more elite rule - built on Rawls. Its intellectual roots can be traced to Rousseau's doctrine of the general will.
The identification of the concept of justice with fairness is highly contestable. It is a perversion, in my opinion, of the classical idea of justice as "what one is owed." It presupposes a collectivist rather than an individualist concept of justice and of society. Its Rousseauian roots are common to all modern forms of collectivism and are reason enough to reject this concept of justice. But it is typical of progressivism that no debate is allowed at the crucial point: the nature of the human person and the relationship of man to society.

Several aspects of contemporary politics become understandable when one understands progressivism in this manner.

First, it explains the rise of the Tea Party. The Tea Party has come into existence almost solely for the purpose of opposing progressivism and deposing from power the progressives who are trying to re-make America in their image. If we understand the Tea Party in this way, we will be much more likely to understand in what sense even its libertarian elements can be properly described as conservative. The Tea Party is conservative in that it opposes Progressivism.

Second, it explains the nature of the rhetorical attacks on the Tea Party by the Left. Why, one might ask, is a popular movement devoted to participatory democracy regarded as being so dangerous by the governing elite? The answer is because the progressive elite is fundamentally anti-democratic in believing that the average citizen simply does not know what is in his own best interest. The depiction of Tea Partiers as racist, violent and bigoted is necessary because the progressives cannot simply say what they really think: that average citizens are too stupid to know what is best for themselves.

Third, it explains what the Tea Party really wants. To hear the progressives talk, one would think that the Tea Party is essentially anarchistic and destructive of all forms of societal cooperation. But their hyperbole at this point arises out of their sense of despair over the refusal of the masses to let the elites decide what is best for them.

The Tea Party stands for three things that the Progressives find abhorrent: (1) democracy as the least bad of all possible systems of governance, (2) limits on the power of the federal government and (3) the conviction that not all problems can be solved because of limitations inherent in human nature. The Tea Party, in short, rejects Utopianism and this is what really drives progressives crazy.

If one gets out of the echo chamber that is the mainstream (progressive-dominated) media long enough to evaluate the Tea Party as opposition to progressive politics, it looks much less wild and woolly. In fact, if you look at it this way it actually begins to look far more sober, grown-up and realistic than progressivism.

1 comment:

D. Chambers said...

Hi Dr. Carter,

I am amazed at the civility amongst the Tea Party in revolt to Obama's progressivism in contrast to the barbaric behavior of Europeans in revolt to declining progressivism and more economic austerity! At worst the Tea Party has a few racists who huddle amongst them. But no destruction of property, firebombing, attacking of police, etc.

Concerning this justice as fairness, I do think that our vocalbulary has been riddled with the notion of fairness. "Life is not fair" is a common idiom. It smacks of the utopian assumptions that this world should do x for me and people should have x. The minute fairness is brought up all the emotionalism vents up as people feel they deserve better. There is no sense of being in a fallen world where justice comes in relation to the "Just One" but rather a pseudo biblical approach of fairness that glosses through the prophets of the OT and the rhetoric of Jesus is used.