We do not need an elite to govern us. We can govern ourselves.
It wasn’t all that long ago that country music was apolitical.
Twenty or thirty years ago, if you were looking for politicized music, you turned to folk, rock, or pop. And your ideological choices were limited — political opinions expressed by musicians ranged from the Soft Left to the Hard Left, from Michael Jackson and Sting and Bono to Pete Seeger and the Clash. But country music (with a few exceptions, such as Willie Nelson) stayed out of politics.
After September 11th, things started changing. And after the financial crisis and the election of Barack Hussein Obama, things changed even more. Along with the rise of the Tea Party movement came a spate of country musicians — Ray Stevens, the Bellamy Brothers, and others — who decided to record their political opinions in their songs. Unlike the namby-pamby saccharine glop cranked out by the “We Are the World” crowd, political country tunes are lively, witty, irreverent — and conservative.
So what’s going on here? Why have people who used to be apolitical become political activists?
According to Lee Harris, the Tea Party awakening is the latest recurrence of a political tradition that is at least as old as the Republic itself. In an article entitled “The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals”, published recently by the Hoover Institution, he sheds some light on the cultural undercurrents of today’s political upheavals:
Intellectual critics of the Tea Party movement most often 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…
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.
The Obama campaign exacerbated the cultural chasm between the runny-brie-and-dry-chablis Republican Brahmins and their hoi polloi cousins out here in Redneckland. A fair number of elite “conservative” opinion-makers — Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley, for example — jumped ship, and a host of others made no secret of their distaste for the hicks, wackos, goldbugs, and conspiracy freaks who comprised (and still comprise) the backbone of the resistance to Obamania.
The divide between the snobs and the rubes exposes the cultural contradictions within American conservatism:
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The alienation of affection between intellectual conservatives and the Republican base is like any marriage that has fallen on hard times — it is not easy to determine who first started alienating whom or where blame should be assigned, or even if there should be any blame at all. Conservative intellectuals, appalled by the Tea Party, will of course blame those who started the movement, while the Tea Partiers themselves can return the charge by claiming that they have been betrayed by those conservative intellectuals who in their hearts gone over to the other side. They have become “polite company conservatives,” as Tunku Varadarajan has called them in an attack that singled out both Frum and Brooks. The PCC (short for polite company conservative) is defined by Varadarajan as
a conservative who yearns for the goodwill of the liberal elite in the media and in the Beltway — who wishes, always, to have their ear, to be at their dinner parties, to be comforted by a sense that liberal interlocutors believe that they are not like other conservatives, with their intolerance and boorishness, their shrillness and their talk radio. The PCC, in fact, distinguishes himself from other conservatives not so much ideologically — though there is an element of that — as aesthetically.
Logic 101 points out that ad hominem attacks are invalid. But Varadarajan is really not trying to rebut Frum and Brooks. Instead, he is making an observation about the social psychology of polite company conservatives — a point we need to examine at greater length.
In the eyes of polite company conservatives, the Tea Partiers clearly represent “rude company” conservatism. David Brooks has strongly implied this by calling the Tea Partiers “the Wal-Mart hippies.” Wal-Mart, after all, is not the place where the polite company does its shopping. On the contrary, Wal-Mart is usually chock full of country bumpkins and blue collar types. But while Brooks’s put-down of the average Wal-Mart shopper might delight the sophisticated set that regularly reads the New York Times, it has close to zero effect on Wal-Mart’s customers. They are not bothered in the least that polite company conservatives like Brooks look down their noses at them. This is not because they fail to show adequate respect for David Brooks — it is because they have never heard of David Brooks.
There are advantages to everything, including ignorance. If you are too ignorant to know who the elite opinion makers are, you will be entirely indifferent to the opinions they hold. Since the people who shop at Wal-Mart do not normally attend the same dinner parties as David Brooks, they will be completely indifferent to the scornful comments made about them by those who do. Because they never read the New York Times, and certainly wouldn’t take it seriously if they did, they could care less about what its op-ed writers say about them. As a result of their ignorance of such matters, they do not judge ideas by whether they come up to the standards of intellectual respectability accepted by the elite. They judge them with their own common sense, caring little whether their conclusions will be shocking and scandalous to polite company. By doing so, they remain outside the influence of elite opinion makers.
More than ten years ago I began to turn away from the print media as my primary source of information and opinion, and nowadays, with the exception of National Review, I pick up everything I need on the Internet. As a result, I don’t spend much time reading David Brooks or Charles Krauthammer anymore. After all, when one can read Fjordman — or, for that matter, Lee Harris — why bother with Polite Company Conservatives?
The legacy media have locked out the Tea Party sympathizers, so the main source of information and energy for the movement comes from the Internet and other new media. One of the reasons that the Tea Partiers so enrage the establishment is that the elites have lost the ability to control the flow of information to the average citizen.
Dissidents are no longer isolated and atomized. The newly-radicalized Tea Party participants are making their presence felt on the political scene:
The nature of American politics has been dramatically revolutionized by the Tea Party’s ability to politicize people who were previously apolitical. Having never felt any deference for elite opinion makers in the first place, the newly politicized Tea Partiers find it easy to turn their backs on them. Having never been in the mainstream, they have no qualms getting out of it. Having never spent any time in polite company, they are indifferent to the opinions that circulate there. Instead of relying on elite pundits, the Tea Partiers prefer to get their opinions from flagrantly non-elite sources, such as right-wing blogs and talk radio, both of which are held in disdain by respectable mainstream intellectuals. Tea Partiers enthusiastically embrace what polite company regards as intolerance, boorishness, and shrillness. They wholeheartedly identify with the hissing rattlesnake on their posters and they feel no qualms in warning off intruders with their defiant “Don’t tread on me!” That is why any attempt to discredit the Tea Party movement by attacking its lack of intellectual respectability is certain to backfire. Such a strategy will simply confirm what the Tea Parties already know: that America is governed by an out of touch elite that is openly and relentlessly hostile to the values of ordinary men and women like themselves.
What sparked the Tea Party revolt is mounting dissatisfaction at living in a society in which a small group has increasingly solidified its monopoly over the manufacture and distribution of opinion, deciding which ideas and policies should be looked upon favorably and which political candidates will be sympathetically reported. Even more, the Tea Party rebels bitterly resent the rigid censorship exercised by this elite over the limits of acceptable public discourse. Those who have the power to rule an opinion “out of order” do not need to take the trouble to refute it, or even examine it. They can simply make it go away.
The goal of such censorship is to create a population that has been so well trained and disciplined by the political elite that it will be incapable of even thinking forbidden thoughts. When the forbidden thoughts are deeply repugnant to us personally, it is easy to sympathize with the goal of the censors. The elimination of racist thinking, along with all the other forms that bigoted intolerance can assume, would surely be a national blessing. But this blessing would come at a steep price. If the censors have the power to eliminate thoughts they find objectionable, what will prevent them from abusing their formidable capacity by imposing their own narrow agenda on the rest of society, and for their own selfish purposes? Indeed, what is to keep them from establishing a totalitarian regime that does not need to rely on terror or brute force simply because it has developed far more effective methods of obtaining the consent of the masses — namely, cultural indoctrination?
As a result, according to Mr. Harris, modern political oppression bears no resemblance to George Orwell’s 1984. For an understanding of what has happened to us, we need instead to consult the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci.
Referring to Gramsci’s studies of the disappearance of languages, Mr. Harris says:
Gramsci argued that what led people to discard their native language was the greater prestige of the conqueror’s language. The idea of prestige, which had never played a role in classical Marxism, became the key to Gramsci’s most famous concept, cultural hegemony. For Orwell, the cultural hegemony sought by the totalitarian state had to be imposed on the masses through diabolically cunning devices such as the telescreen, a reverse television system that permitted the Thought Police to watch and monitor the activities of citizens in the privacy of their own homes. People did not watch the telescreen. Instead they were watched by it, fully cognizant that if they did anything to displease Big Brother they could face the most ghastly consequences imaginable.
For Orwell the basis of cultural hegemony was terror. For Gramsci, on the other hand, it was prestige. Cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, did not have to be imposed on the people through threats and intimidation. It didn’t need to be imposed at all. Conquered subjects sought to emulate the prestigious language of their conquerors, while they simultaneously came to look down on their own native tongue as gross, defective, and inferior. In modern liberal societies the same principle has been at work, but with different players. As education became the ticket to worldly success, it naturally became a source of prestige. Prestige no longer came from conquest by arms, but from earning a Ph.D. In modern secular societies, the eminence of the intellectual elite allowed it to unilaterally allocate prestige to select ideas, thinkers, and institutions. Objects imbued with the magical glow of prestige did not need to be pushed on people — on the contrary, people eagerly vied with each other to obtain these objects, often at great personal sacrifice. That is why prestigious institutions, such as major universities, well-endowed foundations, and posh clubs invariably have far more candidates for admission than can possibly be accommodated — a selectivity that makes them even more desirable and prestigious. That is the beauty of prestige: It doesn’t need to lift a finger. It can just sit back and relax, confident that people will flock to its feet, begging for the crumbs from its luxuriant table.
When the flow of acceptable ideas is so thoroughly controlled, the intellectual mandarins no longer need to resort to violence and coercion. Big Brother is simply not necessary.
So how have the Tea Party people made their way out of this political miasma?
The only defense that the marginalized outsider has against this onslaught is to not give a damn. And the fact that the Tea Party movement does not give a damn about the current standards of intellectual respectability makes it problematic for the intellectual, who cannot take the same attitude. But it is also the characteristic that justifies the Tea Party’s claim to be revolutionary. To be sure, this is not the revolution envisioned by Marx, in which the working class overthrows the capitalist class. It is rather the revolt of common sense against privileged opinion makers, and, by its very nature, it can only be carried out by men and women who are not constrained by the standards of intellectual respectability current in polite company. Again, it is precisely their status as marginalized outsiders that allows them to defy the monopoly of prestige possessed by the cultural insiders. This fact may put them beyond the pale as far as the conservative intellectuals are concerned, but it is precisely what makes them a force capable of resisting the liberal elite’s efforts to achieve cultural hegemony — a resistance that conservative intellectuals had hoped to mount but which they have not mounted, which explains why the Tea Party movement has so little use for them as a whole. As the Tea Partiers see it, what is most needed right now are not new ideas — we have already had far too many of those. What is needed is the revitalization of a very old attitude — the attitude shared by all people who have been able to maintain their liberty and independence against those who would take it away from them: “We do not need an elite to govern us. We can govern ourselves.”
Unfortunately, unless we are to be reduced to anarchy, there is no way to escape entirely the emergence of an elite oligarchy. When governing is a specialized function — and in a complex technological society, such specialization is unavoidable — then a class of specialists will inevitably arise to do the job.
…the illusion that the people can govern themselves, without the need of an elite, has proven to be immensely useful in restraining elites in their incessant quest for greater and greater power.
And, most importantly:
The only truly effective check on elite rule is the fear that the people will become fed up with it. When the people decide to try to rule themselves, their first step toward self-government will be to toss out the old elite. True, the people may simply end up by bringing in a new elite, but this is little consolation to the elite that has been replaced. Hence, any ruling elite that wishes to maintain its hold on power will learn to exercise its power within prudent limits, not overreaching and creating dangerous resentment and backlash among the people. This formidable check on elite power does not arise from flimsy constitutional safeguards, which can always be circumvented, but from the suspicious, even paranoid attitude of defiance displayed by ordinary citizens, which is much harder to get around.
The lesson of history is stark and simple. People who are easy to govern lose their freedom. People who are difficult to govern retain theirs. What makes the difference is not an ideology, but an attitude.
This attitude, the “Don’t Tread on Me” frame of mind, is what guarantees the unpredictability of the current economic and political crisis. No one can foresee how it will play out, because conditions at the grassroots in the United States haven’t been like this in more than a hundred and fifty years.
There’s a rattlesnake on the path. Be warned.
Hat tip: Fjordman.