INTELLECTUAL CRITICS OF the Tea Party movement most attack it for its lack of ideas, especially new ideas--and these critics have a point. But the point they are making reveals as much about them as it does about the Tea Party. Behind the criticism lies the implicit assumption that comes quite naturally to American intellectuals: Namely, that a political movement ought be motivated by ideas and that a new political movement should provide new ideas. But the Tea Party movement is not about ideas. It is all about attitude, like the attitude expressed by the popular poster seen at all Tea Party rallies. Over the head of a hissing rattlesnake threatening to strike is inscribed the defiant slogan so popular among our revolutionary ancestors: "Don't tread on me!" The old defiant motto is certainly not a new idea. In fact, it is not an idea at all. It is a warning.
If you are an intellectual, you can debate an idea, but how do you debate a warning? No evidence can be adduced to refute it. No logic can be introduced to poke holes in it. All you can do with a warning is to heed it or disregard it. "Don't tread on me!" is not the deliberate articulation of a well-thought-out political ideology, but rather the expression of an attitude--the attitude of pugnacious and even truculent defiance. But take away this attitude, and what is left of the Tea Party? Not much that respectable intellectuals can respect. First of all, there appears to be no consistent ideology or coherent set of policies behind the movement. Second, when intellectuals turn to examine some of the more radical proposals championed in Tea Party circles, such as the abolition of Social Security or the return to the gold standard, they can only shake their heads in dismay. These crank nostrums are well past their historical expiration date. They may elicit fanatic support from the politically naive and unsophisticated, but no one who knows how the political world operates will pay them a moment's notice. Reviving the gold standard in order to solve our economic problems is akin to reviving the horse-and-buggy to reduce our level of carbon emissions. It ain't gonna happen, and those who put their energies into pursuing these quack solutions are at best engaged in the politics of make-believe.
It is little wonder that so many sober intellectuals find it difficult to take the Tea Party seriously, except to see it as a threat to the future of American politics. But anti-Tea Party intellectuals who are liberal have a luxury that their conservative brethren don't have. Liberals can attack and deride the Tea Party without fear of alienating their traditional allies among ordinary voters. Indeed, their mockery of the Tea Party makes good sense to them politically. It is throwing red meat to their base. But conservative intellectuals are in a wholly different position.
As the Tea Party gains in momentum, conservative intellectuals are faced with a dilemma: to join the party or denounce it. If they join, they risk losing their status as respectable public intellectuals. If they denounce the party, they risk losing influence over the traditional Republican base.
An alienation of affections
THERE IS SOMETHING puzzling about the dilemma confronting conservative intellectuals. The Tea Partiers, after all, are emphatic in their insistence that they are true-blue conservatives. Shouldn't conservative intellectuals be delighted at the rise of populist movement made up of conservatives like themselves? But that is just the problem: The Tea Partiers are not conservatives like themselves. Eminent conservatives, such as David Frum and David Brooks, have made this point by their serial putdowns of the Tea Party movement, largely on the grounds that it lacks intellectual respectability. A few conservative intellectuals, and an even smaller number of liberal intellectuals, have expressed sympathies with the anger and frustration expressed by the Tea Partiers, but, by and large, they have decidedly mixed feelings about the populist conservative movement. …