About 40 years ago, a social movement arose to destroy the establishment. The people we loosely call the New Left wanted to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution.
Today, another social movement has arisen. The people we loosely call the Tea Partiers also want to destroy the establishment. They also want to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution. […]
[T]he core commonality is this: Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures. […]
Because of this assumption, members of both movements go in big for conspiracy theories. The '60s left developed elaborate theories of how world history was being manipulated by shadowy corporatist/imperialist networks — theories that live on in the works of Noam Chomsky. In its short life, the Tea Party movement has developed a dizzying array of conspiracy theories involving the Fed, the F.B.I., the big banks and corporations and black helicopters. […]
[B]oth movements have a problem with authority. Both have a mostly negative agenda: destroy the corrupt structures; defeat the establishment. Like the New Left, the Tea Party movement has no clear set of plans for what to do beyond the golden moment of personal liberation, when the federal leviathan is brought low.
Brooks goes on to call TPers "radically anticonservative" (like that's a bad thing!), and warns that, like the New Left, they will "ruin" what "legitimate point" they have "through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and naïve radicalism."
A few points: 1) When's the last time you heard the phrase "black helicopters" from anyone who wasn't using it to deride conspiracy theorists? 2) That "legitimate point" formulation, however grudging, is still a far cry from Brooks calling anti-stimulus right-of-center people the "Smoot-Hawleys of the 21st century," a pack of "nihilists" who are on a "single-minded mission to destroy the Republican Party." 3) Conspiracy theories thrive wherever people feel powerless. Non-major-party movements (and let's remember, the New Left seriously hated on Democrats in power, at least at first) are by definition collections of people who feel powerless. We should not be surprised that there is a greater incidence of conspiracy-think there. That's not an excuse, but I get the impression sometimes that journalists think the Tea Party movement is nothing but a product of one grand conspiracy theory, as opposed to a rational response to a two-party political system that has for a decade jettisoned all vestiges of the very American tradition of limited-government philosophy.
More importantly, 4) Even if we consider the New Left an unmitigated political failure–and I for one do not, because of the Church Commission if absolutely nothing else–there is no denying that the tendency had a profound impact on culture and the law, plenty of it (initially, anyway) in a positive direction. The New Left was on the front lines of fighting anti-obscenity laws, ending military conscription, expanding the limits of artistic expression, generally loosening the necktie on the broader culture, and much more. Judging the New Left purely in terms of political Xs and Os kind of misses the point.
It also hints at an opportunity for the Tea Party movement. If the political goals are measured merely in Republican-vs.-Democrats victories (even with some Republican-on-Republican primary scalps thrown in), the tendency will lose its cultural juice faster than you can "Saturday Night Live." If the eye remains on the not-ready-for-partisan-time prize of reducing the size and direction of government at all levels–similar to the way that the New Left in that first decade always kept at least one cocked eye on the twin prizes of expanding free speech and ending the Vietnam War–then this thing might last beyond November 2010. I look forward to seeing what David Brooks will write then.