Change, Reaction, And Conservatism: Reading The Tea Leaves

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GOTTEA?JessicaKourkonis:Getty

Noah Millman uses gay equality to make a larger point:

It gets worse before it gets better – indeed, it gets worse even as it’s getting better. That’s the way the politics of these sorts of issues goes, issues that appear to present very fundamental challenges to an entire worldview. At the outset, the worldview has a variety of sources of support: longstanding traditions and patterns of behavior; a larger societal consensus on the rightness of a position; the support of scientific authorities; etc. But as these supports fall away, as patterns of behavior change, as the question becomes contested rather than settled, as the scientific consensus dissolves or even switches to the other side, the defender of the traditional understanding is left with only one actual argument: if I give this up, I will have surrendered everything. And so I will never give up.

This isn’t even a specifically religious phenomenon, something I think Andrew is reluctant to recognize.

The pieds noirs grew more radical even as their political position grew untenable as they were abandoned by Paris. Ditto for Rhodesia. Ditto for defenses of segregation in the American South. The challenge of homosexuality is distinct in that gay people appear everywhere, in all kinds of families – the solution of separatism is not a viable one. But otherwise, it’s a pretty familiar dynamic. And we’ve probably got a decent idea of how that dynamic will play out:

It’ll get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it’ll get worse even as it gets better, even because it gets better.

I think that's exactly right about the dynamics of certain aspects of change. And, yes, it's not just religious, as Noah notes - although religious fundamentalism does become more psychologically helpful in periods of social change and personal bewilderment. I think this also helps explain the intensity of the cultural reaction to Obama. There is a rational argument against some of his policies, of course (health insurance reform primary among them). But the passion of opposition stems, I think, in part from a sense that the way the world once was is disappearing, that this is inevitable, and a repressed acknowledgment of the inevitability actually intensifies a resistance to it.

The America of the future will not be the America of the 1950s, the teenage years of many of those in the Tea Party movement.

It will be majority-minority, it will be one where gay people are not only visible but equal, it will blur racial identity and more and more people will have very complicated and mixed-up selves. The Tea Partiers want "their country back" in an almost poignant way - because their country will never come back, because change is now here for ever. That's also why there is an irrational resistance to any kind of acceptance that 12 million largely Latino illegal immigrants simply need to be integrated somehow, because mass deportation is impossible and a total control of the border very very hard (though still worth attempting). But the babies are already here! And American! So we have the panicked bizarre proposals to tear up birthright citizenship, the settled way of things for a very long time, because emotion - fear - is flooding the frontal cortex.

Obama, for many of the afraid, almost sums up in one person this entire, blurring, mocha, non-Rockwellian vision of the future, which is why so many under 40 felt drawn to him culturally and psychologically - and also why we under-estimated the inevitable cultural reaction among many of the over-40s once he actually had power and exercised it.

He is not, after all, the first black president. He is the first miscegenated president. He is a blurring of boundaries, a Hawaiian-Chicago-Black-Ivy-League-Child-Of-A-Single-Mother kind of blurring. The very complexity of his identity can threaten those whose experience simply hasn't been the same. (One thinks of Palin, for example, and her idealization of an America that requires a wild frontier of a Rockwellian Alaska to stay faintly credible as part of modernity).

Add that to the sense that Obama represents a kind of collectivism, intensified by necessarily collective responses to a major crisis like this recession, and I can certainly understand where the Tea Party is coming from psychologically.

This is not the same as calling it racist. Tea partiers rightly recoil from that personally because it isn't true for most and is far too crude to explain why they feel the way they do. And I think it's the cultural feeling that really dominates their psyche - and our politics - right now, not a political argument. They feel besieged by change. And that is, of course, a conservative feeling.

But the lashing out is not conservative; it is reactionary and populist and dangerous. And the goal of the Burkean conservative is to try and bridge the feelings of loss and panic with a calmer assessment of actual reality and its practical challenges, not to double down and intensify the fear and panic. In that, I remain of the view that Obama truly is the conservative in this - or is trying to be - and that until a calmer, saner, more open-minded Republican emerges, he's the best option as president that we've got.

(Photo: Tea Party activist Dot Michael of Dresher, PA., wears her favorite Tea Party button to a 'Get Out The Vote' rally for Pat Toomey at SmokeEaters Pub in Philadelphia on October 12, 2010. Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots, along with FreedomWorks PAC hosted a grassroots activists rally in support of Pat Toomey's campaign. By Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images.)

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