Sunday, March 7, 2010

The New Left and the Tea Party

David Brooks' latest attempt at historical comparison suffers from the same superficiality that too often dominates his writing. The Tea Party movement, he tells us, is much like the New Left of the 1960s. That's only true if you rewrite the history of the 1960s.

Let's begin with the way Brooks uses the term "New Left." For him, it is a catch-all phrase, effectively meaning anyone who protested, marched, went to a concert, or got high. The New Left, he tells us, "was bohemian ... was motivated by war ... [and] went to Woodstock." If that's what Brooks thinks the New Left was, he really has no idea what he is talking about.

When I teach the history of the 1960s, one of the first things I make sure students understand is that the term "New Left" had a particular meaning, and that it isn't the stereotypical "hippy" identity that the title of this piece invokes.

The New Left was an explicitly political movement, whose birth is often traced to a political manifesto, the Port Huron Statement of 1962, which in turn was inspired by the work of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, especially his book, The Power Elite.

From the Port Huron statement's first sentence, it is clear that Brooks is wrong in painting the movement as "bohemian" rather than "bourgeois." It states: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit." In short, utterly middle class.

The New Left was motivated by war, in a sense, but Port Huron preceded escalation in Vietnam and was concerned with the general threat of nuclear annihilation. More generally, it reflected a sense of unease, a concern not that things were changing too fast, but that they were not changing fast enough: "Although mankind desperately needs revolutionary leadership, America rests in national stalemate, its goals ambiguous and tradition-bound instead of informed and clear."

More specifically, it was motivated by the civil rights movement and sought to bring its ideals of non-violence and the pursuit of human dignity beyond that single cause to all American institutions. It was, at least initially, hopeful and idealistic. But eventually, as the Vietnam war escalated, and the nation became ever more divided, the New Left became increasingly Marxist in its orientation, with the most radical element, the Weather Underground, even advocating revolutionary violence. But through it all, its advocates were ever serious and engaged with politics.

By contrast, the people who were called "hippies" were more often representative of the counterculture, which, while its membership could sometimes overlap with the New Left, was not particularly political. The counterculture's inspiration came, not surprisingly, from cultural influences like the Beats of the 1950s (Jack Kerouac rather than C. Wright Mills). It found its inspiration in music, it was more concerned with social norms than government policies. These are the "bohemians" at Woodstock that Brooks is thinking of. These are the people who retreated in disillusionment to the mountains of Vermont to form communes; they are not the ones who took to the streets.

According to Brooks, "the core commonality" between the movements of the 1960s and today's Tea Party "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." What Brooks is really describing here is populism, which goes back at least to Andrew Jackson and his fight against the "monster" national bank, and reached its heyday in the 1890s.

Whatever the New Left was, it wasn't populist. Populism is often reactionary, yearning for an idyllic past (usually one that that never really existed outside the realm of myth). The Tea Party movement seems in some ways to fit that description, with its explicit evocation of the American Revolution and pseudo-libertarian rejection of modern government and modern values. The New Left, by contrast, was explicitly forward-looking. Its goal was to create something self-consciously new, what it called "participatory democracy." It was predominantly a youth movement, while the Tea Party demographic tends to be more middle-aged.

Brooks is right about one thing: the Tea Party movement's radicalism is "anticonservative." It is, in fact, radically reactionary. What he misses in his insistence on the similarity between the New Left and the Tea Party movement is potentially the significant difference between the two: the former never had a realistic chance to control the Democratic Party. It was, in part, the failure of the anti-war movement to change even the Democratic Party's platform in 1968 to oppose the war in Vietnam that led some to advocate violence. By contrast, the Tea Party is making a concerted effort to take over today's Republican Party. The way that even relatively moderate GOP figures such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have recently adapted their rhetoric to fit Tea Party expectations makes me doubt Brooks' conclusion that "the Tea Partiers will not take over the G.O.P." In some ways, they already have.

1 comment:

  1. Nice one, Mark. I've always felt Brooks left a little to be desired in terms of historical analysis.

    Did you know that SDS has resurged (in a small but significant way)? Did you know that there are youth-led movements building across the nation--their roots are in the New Left. They don't receive the same coverage as the Tea Party folks, and my initial guess is that it's because the new New Left kids are both political and countercultural. Just a thought.

    Thanks for this blog, Mark.