Who are the tea partiers, and what do they mean for American conservatism? Are they yeoman defenders of middle America? Are they another ’60s revival, clad this time in the drag of Colonial Williamsburg?
One way of answering the question is by looking to Glenn Beck’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington two weeks ago. If Mr. Beck is an example of the new sensibility, then what distinguishes the new conservatives is a deep grievance with history itself.
Consider how Mr. Beck, the popular host of a Fox News program, began his performance at CPAC: “Hello. Please. Thank you. Please be seated. I have to tell you, I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me. God bless you.”
Now, deploring the works of the 28th president is not a new thing at CPAC. But Mr. Beck has developed a theory of progressivism that he illustrated by listing the many tyrannical misdeeds of the Wilson administration: “he gives us the Fed.” “He gives us the income tax.” And then, a confusing few sentences later, “Prohibition. So he took away the alcohol. Progressive plan to take care of everyone.”
It’s easy to see how all of these villainies might come together in the mind of a freedom-fighting CPAC attendee: Progressives were the original big-government sinners; prohibition, which was backed by some progressives, was the classic example of misguided governmental overreach; Wilson, who was a progressive, was president when prohibition passed; ergo, prohibition must be added to the list of offenses that will keep Wilson in freedom purgatory for eons.
But the neat pattern does not hold. As it happens, Woodrow Wilson was not a prohibitionist. He even vetoed the 1919 Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment’s prohibition of intoxicating liquors. (Congress overrode his veto.) By contrast, the laissez-faire hero Calvin Coolidge, whom Mr. Beck praised at CPAC, signed the 1929 Jones Act, which beefed up prohibition enforcement. Meanwhile, arch-progressive Franklin Roosevelt got prohibition repealed in 1933.
Still, there’s something about this “hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me” stuff that gets at the perverse temper of this misguided moment.
Conservative philosophies of government have brought us to the brink of economic disaster. So how do conservatives respond? By pondering anew the imagined crimes of the progressive and New Deal eras. By rededicating themselves to an even purer version of their tainted faith. The halfhearted liberals in the White House dream of bringing health-care costs under control, and conservatives demand in response a more thorough antiliberalism than ever before. Tear out the welfare state root and branch, and abolish the Fed, too! That will show the meddlers of the past 120 years.
What should we call this sensibility? One helpful suggestion comes from the Republican National Committee. In a PowerPoint presentation given to party fund-raisers in Florida last month and made public by Politico last week, the RNC speculated about what motivated its benefactors.
“Major Donors,” according to this document, act on the usual motives: “Networking Opportunities” and the promise of “Access.” But what mobilizes the targets of “Direct Marketing”—which is to say, the sort of people who watch Glenn Beck—are more “visceral” sentiments: “Fear” and “Extreme negative feelings toward existing Administration.” These donors are, in the language of the presentation, “Reactionary.”
Now there’s a word with some sweep to it: The attitude it describes is not merely conservative; it is a longing to reverse history’s flow. The people so categorized may fantasize about scaring the Redcoats with a musket and a snake flag, but they are, according to this way of thinking, emotional descendants of the squalid royalists who reconquered Europe after the French Revolution was extinguished.
But this is not quite right. “Reactionary” implies a romantic attachment to a vanished medieval hierarchy of the kind we never had in America. The great dream here has always been an economic state of nature, where humans live in harmony with an untainted market.
A story that ran in the New York Times in January provided what may be the perfect expression of the new conservative sensibility. It described the daily adventures of the “paleos” or “urban cavemen,” a group of diet faddists who try to recapture the vitality of our prehistoric ancestors. They do strange exercises, eat lots of meat, and shun bronze-age affectations such as bread. A number of them are, the Times noted, libertarians.
Now, here is the revolt against big government stripped down to its essentials. Civilization itself is the bunk, its taxes and regulations as artificial and as unhealthy as its diet of booze and candy. For today’s cavemen conservatives, the correct model is simplicity itself: It’s every man for himself. And if you want a piece of the mammoth, you’d better get to work.