David Brooks has a provocative column today likening today’s Tea Party movement to the New Left that emerged in the 60s counterculture. Brooks is right about some of the outward similarities: the populist rhetoric; the grassroots activism; the disdain for political elites; and, ultimately, the somewhat diffuse policy agenda defined more by what it stands against than what it stands for. With a nod to our own David Horowitz, a former New Left icon whose books are now big with the Tea Party set (among others!), Brooks even slyly suggests a certain intellectual symmetry between the two social movements.
Move past these stylistic parallels, though, and the comparison begins to break down. For instance, Brooks suggests that an animating goal of both the New Left and the Tea Partiers is a radical one: the destruction of existing political institutions. But that seems far more accurate as a description of the New Left than the Tea Parties. The Tea Parties certainly appeal to Americans angry at the performance of the two major political parties, the Congress and the Obama administration, but save for a small ideological fringe they are not seeking a wholesale transformation of American governance and society. In that sense, the Tea Parties aren’t very radical at all.
By contrast, if you consult the charter document of the New Left, the 1962 “Port Huron Statement,” you will see that its organizers were seeking a radical change that most of American society did not favor, and were conscious that theirs was a minority view. Indeed, that is one of the major reasons that the New Left set itself in opposition to existing American institutions: it saw them, accurately, as cultural unifiers that prevented the revolutionary transformation sought by the New Left. Here is the relevant passage:
Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living. But we are a minority–the vast majority of our people regard the temporary equilibriums of our society and world as eternally functional parts. In this is perhaps the outstanding paradox; we ourselves are imbued with urgency, yet the message of our society is that there is no viable alternative to the present. Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians, beneath the common opinion that America will “muddle through,” beneath the stagnation of those who have closed their minds to the future, is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well. Feeling the press of complexity upon the emptiness of life, people are fearful of the thought that at any moment things might be thrust out of control. They fear change itself, since change might smash whatever invisible framework seems to hold back chaos for them now. For most Americans, all crusades are suspect, threatening. The fact that each individual sees apathy in his fellows perpetuates the common reluctance to organize for change. The dominant institutions are complex enough to blunt the minds of their potential critics, and entrenched enough to swiftly dissipate or entirely repel the energies of protest and reform, thus limiting human expectancies. Then, too, we are a materially improved society, and by our own improvements we seem to have weakened the case for further change.
It’s impossible to imagine the Tea Party activists agreeing with anything in the above. Not only do they not seek the destruction of “dominant institutions,” but in fact they see themselves as broadly representative of a large part of the American public that has become disillusioned by the explosive growth of the federal government, the soaring federal debt, and the generally ill state of the economy. To that extent, I would argue, the Tea Parties enjoy a kind of popular legitimacy that the New Left never did. Brooks inadvertently acknowledges the point when he quips that the difference between the New Left and the Tea Partiers is that one went to “Woodstock, the other is more likely to go to Wal-Mart.” But of course Wal-Mart defies political stereotyping: it attracts a cross-section of American society, transcending race, class and partisan affiliation. So, too, with the Tea Parties.
Then, of course, there is the salient fact that the New Left and the Tea Parties have virtually opposite political aspirations. The New Left’s vision was a socialist utopia in which “the people” would control the economic institutions. History tells us how that worked out. The Tea Parties may not have a specific policy agenda but their preference is undeniably for a less activist, less legislatively ambitious federal government. That impulse is not without its utopian strain – as some of the more zealous libertarian types suggest – but it has little in common with the New Left’s collectivist vision. To put it somewhat more crudely, the New Left was a revolt for socialism; the Tea Parties are a revolt against it.
For all the flaws of Brooks’s thesis, one may at least hope that he is right in analogizing the historical significance of both movements. The New Left certainly left its mark on American society, a largely baleful legacy incomparably chronicled in David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s Destructive Generation. It would be welcome indeed if, in this time of government excess, the Tea Parties can serve as the kind of corrective that the New Left, in all its utopian scheming, never could.