Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The Tea Party and the Limits of Ideology

Powerful needs and desires have given rise to the populist movement known as “The Tea Party”. I suspect that for every active member, there are dozens more who are sympathetic to its goals, making this truly a massive grass roots movement for change

I am not one of those who deplores the tea party phenomenon. Nor do I believe that it is appropriate or accurate for politicians and media figures to use intemperate language (racists, terrorists) to describe its members. (The word "racist" has come to have a debased meaning, often simply meaning that "I disagree with you, and I challenge your right to have views different from mine”)

Further, I am in support of most of their key aims, including a reduction in federal spending, a shrinkage in the size of government, and more reliance on the private sector.

However, I believe that any grass roots populist movement will necessarily appeal to highly concerned and often angry Americans by adopting an ideology that may be overly simplistic, and will tend toward intolerance of differences and alternative solutions. Carried to extremes, it will frequently be dangerous. .

We can look to history to see the fate of populist movements; the history of such movements has not been a happy one. I present one extreme example from American history.

During the early years of the twentieth century, there was a popular movement known as eugenics that seized the imagination of many liberals and progressives. They believed that American life could be greatly improved by sterilizing "defectives", thereby removing them from the gene pool. Its proponents shared the belief that directing reproduction and biological selection could improve, and possibly even perfect, society. As a result, 60,000 involuntary sterilizations were performed with public support.

No less a figure than Associate Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concurred. Justice Holmes had been a law professor at Harvard, had advocated for expansive freedom of speech, was considered to possess a highly rational intellect, and was a popular figure among American progressives. In the case of Carrie Buck, he opined that sterilization would be better for the world because, as he stated, "three generations of imbeciles are enough". It required the adoption and extension of this American program by Nazi Germany to realize how repulsive these words and this activity was. In the name of a well-meaning goal, we almost went down a rabbit hole of maleficence.

In other words, what may seem to make sense at first blush may contain within it the potential for consequences that were never intended and may be highly harmful. Most ideologies, whether left or right, historically offer simple solutions to complex problems, and often lead to unintended and harmful consequences.

So what are the problems with the tea party?

Our major domestic predicament today, in my opinion, is unemployment. Lower this, and we will have more Americans consuming, and more Americans paying taxes, resulting in economic stimulation and increased government revenues.

How do we increase employment? Many brilliant economists disagree on the ways to accomplish this, and especially disagree on the role of government. Some believe that government must be the employer of last resort, as did those who were advising Roosevelt in the 1930s. These experts claim that our recovery from the Great Depression was the result of the actions of increased government spending. Others, equally brilliant and credentialed, claim that Roosevelt’s actions kept us mired in the Depression for too long, and it was only the “stimulus” provided by World War ll that solved the problem.

I don’t have the answer to this question, but neither, I suspect, do the tea party movers and shakers. One of the leaders of the tea party movement, Congressman Michelle Bachmann, is a woman that I admire greatly. She is articulate, energetic, ethical, and smart. But her decision to vote against increasing the debt limit shows a rigidity that I believe is unfortunate, and raises some valid questions about her judgment.

In the latest drama surrounding the debt ceiling limit, many beliefs and issues were played out in clear and stark relief. Most tea party people believe that the final deal was a bad one. They believe that we should have had greater cuts, and that the debt ceiling should not have been raised. (Had the limit not been raised, it is likely that American credit would have been downgraded, resulting in higher interest rates further aggravating our deficit.) Even though virtually all of the demands of the conservatives were met, this was not good enough for the tea party leadership. This shows a form of ideological extremism, an unwillingness to compromise, which is inconsistent with the need for tolerance, compromise and democratic norms.

A second area of concern lies with entitlements. Most tea party leaders want entitlement spending to be reduced. But how can we do this and keep our safety net intact? Perhaps there are many who find no problem in going back to the days when there was no such thing as a safety net. But this is not the position of most Americans, liberal or conservative.

Take Social Security. When it was originally enacted, coverage began at a time when most Americans retired. That also coincided with what was then the average life expectancy. Since then, many people are retiring earlier, and life expectancy has advanced dramatically. This means more Americans are receiving social security, and a smaller percent are paying into it. While this states the problem in a nutshell, it fails to suggest a feasible solution. I have seen no proposed solutions of an adequate safety net.

Take Medicare. Many of my conservative friends advocate reduced Medicare spending. Well, how do we do this? One suggestion is to eliminate waste, fraud, abuse, and unnecessary procedures. Yes, we need to do all of these things. Yet these items are an extremely small fraction of Medicare spending, and will not make a dent in the enormous expenditures. Another solution is to pay less to providers This is a formula for demanding that physicians provide care at a level of compensation less than the cost of their overhead, and will simply drive more doctors away from treating Medicare patients

Another suggestion is a greater reliance on paraprofessionals. While this will work well in many instances, it will also lower quality, and/or will be completely unacceptable to most Americans. Bottom line? Many possible solutions are being debated, but they are neither simple nor cheap. Sloganeering about reducing entitlement spending is simple, neat, appealing, and solves nothing.. .

The ideology of the tea party (as well as many other ideologies including those of modern day progressives who appear on MSNBC) shows a tendency toward a rigidity and intolerance that are not in the best interests of our nation. This phenomenon was best described by the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who believed that there is never any one correct answer, but that pluralism of opinions is desirable. He stated that “a society in which many opinions are held, and those holding different opinions are tolerant of each other, is better than a monolithic in which one opinion is binding on everyone …. The enemy of pluralism is monism -- the ancient belief that there is a single harmony of truths into which everything, if it is genuine, in the end must fit.”

The challenge for the tea party is to examine what will work, and to be tolerant of a pluralism of opinions and ideologies. However, for a grass roots populist movement to adhere to such precepts would likely diminish its mass appeal. And therein lies the limits of all grass roots populist ideologies. To capture the mood and allegiance of large numbers of frustrated and angry citizens usually means abandoning the use of reason, the appreciation of complexity, tolerance and pluralism.

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