Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tea Party Envy

Everybody has their least favorite pundit. Although the competition is fierce, Richard Cohen is probably mine. So the fact that he said something in yesterday’s column that excited my sympathy calls for a little humbling self-examination (my emphasis):
“I suffer from Tea Party envy. There is little about the actual party I like and there are some members I abhor, but I am jealous of its sense of purpose, its determination and its bracing conviction that it is absolutely right. In its own way, it waves a crimson battle flag while President Obama’s is a sickly taupe— the limp banner of an ideological muddle. . . .

“Obama is the president of political ennui. I say this out of empathy. He is like many of us, post-ideological.
Although I disagree emphatically with a lot of Tea Party doctrine, I suffer from a little “Tea Party envy” myself. As usual, however, Cohen’s narcissism gets in the way of understanding what’s enviable about it. He intuits, correctly enough, that the Tea Partiers have succeeded in bending the nation to their will because they have something that their Democratic counterparties conspicuously lack— steadfast conviction. But Cohen, whose most steadfast convictions appear to be about himself, can only presume that the Tea Party’s core convictions are equally self-regarding. To hear him tell it, the Tea Partiers are moved principally, not by their beliefs about how the political economy should work, but by a “bracing conviction” about their own infallibility.

That’s pretty transparently a case of projection. Yes, Tea Partiers think that their political thoughts are correct—what would be the point of thinking them if they didn’t? But they can’t hold a candle to liberal establishmentarians like Cohen when it comes to presumptions about their own infallibility. Ask a Tea Partier how the political economy ought to work and he'll paint you a big picture in the language of high principle and homespun wisdom. It’s today’s liberals who, not having a big picture to paint, nevertheless, expect less credentialed people to defer to their “post-ideological” equivocations.

Liberals now speak the language of Yeats, confronting an emerging world that defied comprehension:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.”
If liberals envy Tea Partiers, it’s because they retain the ideological memory of a time when they were full of passionate intensity themselves and “the best” was a term they applied more liberally to their model of a "Great Society" than to themselves.

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