Monday, January 16, 2012

A Moral Enterprise: America and the Irrelevance of the Tea Party

Paul Adams
I recently attended a presentation by a local Tea Party leader about the relevance of his movement.  It’s a good question, given the rapid collapse of TP’s influence, as far as can be discerned from the GOP primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.  The TP is a kind of mirror image of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Each draws support from its wing of the elite media. Both tap into resentments about crony capitalism (including “vulture capitalists,” in Rick Perry’s memorable expression) and government bailouts.  Both produced a lot of steam for a time, but lacked a piston box and piston that could channel the steam into an engine that goes somewhere.  Despite its using the term “party,” the TP lacked organization and leadership so could only trail along behind those who had it or dissipate into the atmosphere.  Neither had demands, policies, or strategies that were clear and credible.  Both tended to the quixotic and silly as well as, in my limited acquaintance, to crackpot conspiracy theories--all of which suggests the persistence on left and right of the ‘paranoid style in American politics’ and an innocence about real political and social forces.
The presentation was lamentable.  A rant against the Supreme Court, it largely ignored the issues that must concern anyone who cares about the common good--like why inequality is increasing rapidly and how this relates to the growing social divide in the U.S.  For the less affluent and less highly educated this gulf finds expression in communities where marriage is disintegrating, children are growing up without at least one of their parents, abortion is rampant, divorce and cohabitation are norms.  The evidence overwhelmingly supports the arguments of social conservatives like Rick Santorum, while liberals who claim to speak for the poor and downtrodden celebrate these developments as expressions of family diversity (not breakdown), of individual choice and freedom (for adults anyway).
On these issues Tea Partiers have little or nothing to say.  They resemble liberals who see moral questions like same-sex marriage only in terms of individual rights.  They are bound to a kind of individualism that sees nothing but aggregations of individual choices in the structures that mediate between individual and state.  These are the associations or institutions celebrated by successive popes as well as Tocqueville and the American republican liberal tradition of the framers of the Constitution (which, curiously, our Tea Party spokesman, like a biblical literalist, treated as Holy Writ in no need of interpretation).  Rather, in their view, it is all a matter of individual choice as against the collectivist state.  In Margaret Thatcher’s most memorable quote, which could be endorsed--but for its author--by the advocates of same-sex marriage or the ‘right to choose’ as much as by libertarians, “There is no such thing as society.”  
In the republican theory of Aristotle and the Founding Fathers, as well as modern communitarians like Michael Sandel, liberty depends on sharing in self-governance, which in turn “means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community.”  The habits of the heart required for and developed by self-governing members of a particular family, community, and nation are those of a situated, encumbered self.  In this narrative conception of personhood, we develop in “reciprocal indebtedness” (MacIntyre, 1999), from total dependence to a degree of autonomy through ties to family and community, culture and tradition.
In contrast, the liberalism of recent years conceives persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen. This conception of rights and individual autonomy assumes that freedom consists in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends.  One key practical expression of this shift in liberalism is the subordination of the rights and needs of children to the freedoms of adults.  (On the extensiveness and significance of this shift, see Elizabeth Marquardt’s The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs.) 
All of this comes to mind again in light of the Wall Street Journal’s relentless libertarianism, which the editor of First Things magazine, R.R. Reno, takes to task today.  The WSJ had criticized Rick Santorum in these terms:
 Most disappointing is the Pennsylvanian’s proposal to triple the tax credit for children (today $1,000), which is a hobby horse of the Christian right. This is social policy masquerading as economics. Unlike a cut in marginal tax rates, a larger tax credit does little for growth because it doesn’t change incentives to save, work or invest. It merely rewards taxpayers who have children over those who don’t. 
 “This extraordinary paragraph,” notes Reno, “echoes an earlier column by Wall Street Journal regular, Kimberley Strassel, who also attacked Santorum’s call for a larger child tax credit, 'which benefits only Americans fortunate enough to have a child,' and thus, Strassel suggests, is unfair to those who do not.” 
The underlying view of the human person in relation to society that leads to these conclusions fits with postmodern relativism, which says that we are motivated by a will-to-power or sexual desire (the two main options in postmodern theory), but not in accord with an essential human nature, and not toward any normative end. By this way of thinking there is no human nature, no natural as opposed to unnatural way to live. Society constructs norms (social engineering), and individuals do this or that in accord with their own personal wishes and desires (lifestyle choices).

Take will-to-power and domesticate it as economic self-interest, and you pretty much have the political and social vision of free-market libertarianism. I see little future for what is today a very modern social philosophy in American conservatism. Yes we’d like to be richer, but that’s not all we want. We want to live in accord with our nature as human beings, and that includes contributing to and enjoying the primitive community of the family. If free market libertarians can’t get their minds around that fact—and the fact that as we make personal choices about marriage and children we’re influenced by a manifold of social and economic incentives—then I can’t see how they will be able to formulate a governing consensus. Over the long haul people won’t vote for politicians who won’t work to implement policies that help them live the kinds of lives their nature desires.
The fact is that states cannot be neutral about social issues like marriage, divorce, cohabitation, abortion, or children and families--treating them purely as matters of lifestyle and individual choice--any more than it could have been about the institution of slavery.  Even the strong libertarian (and radical feminist) position of privatizing or abolishing marriage altogether as a public institution--as if the state had no responsibility for the common good or the common good did not extend to such matters as optimal circumstances for having and rearing children--is a political choice (to destroy marriage).  
Tax policies that reflect a growing tendency in family law thinking and increasingly in practice, to break down the legal distinction between marriage and cohabitation, are sometimes promoted in name of individual rights, non-discrimination, and elimination of stigma.  As such, they are not alternatives to social policy or expressions of state neutrality and deference to individual understandings of the “sweet mystery of life.”  They themselves are social policies, just as much as any marriage and family policy.  They just happen to be policies that undermine marriage, our most important pro-child institution.
As Reno says, “Over the long haul people won’t vote for politicians who won’t work to implement policies that help them live the kinds of lives their nature desires.”  Sadly, events may prove him over-optimistic in this opinion.

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