Deciphering The Tea Tantrums

A reader writes:

I can't help but assign the tea protests a place in my view that the Right is generally going through the same convulsions that overtook the Left in the late 1970's and continued into the 1990's.

The Left of that era grew to be increasingly insular, ideologically rigid, and dyspeptic. Identifying as a liberal during the Reagan era was a bit of a badge of honor, but the complete lack of power lead to all sorts of nuttiness. With nothing but a record of losing, it became possible for the anyone on the Left to come up with ridiculous policy prescriptions, and the lack of anyone in power listening made the advocate look bold and daring, rather than unstable and silly.

Nowhere was this more evident than in what I call the "Protest Left."

 With misty memories of the civil rights and Vietnam demonstrations in their heads, this crowd would take to the streets at the drop of a hat.  As the years wore on, these protests grew increasingly incoherent and undirected. In the 1990's while in college, after getting sick of the nonsense, I would press my ideological colleagues who would ask me to go march in the streets about something, "What are we trying to accomplish?  Who is the target? What do we want them to do?"  The answers were always vague generalities about "building the movement," "taking action," and the ever-present "raising awareness" among the amorphous "society."  (I must note that during this era I did witness some highly effective, targeted, and well organized protests, but they tended to be the exception.)

It increasingly struck me that these protests served primarily as form of group therapy via self expression.  When ones movement is, quite literally, powerless, there's a sense of despair that can take over.  In a demonstration, one can commiserate with ones fellow travelers, and instead of powerlessness, there's a feeling of righteous indignation.  Also, there's the added advantage of getting a forum where it's socially acceptable to shout your beliefs at other people, which regardless of its utility and efficacy (or lack thereof), is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, it leads to a deep intellectual rot, as good ideas commingle with ridiculous ones without vetting, and protests obsessed with self-interest leave vital political action undone.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the run-up to the Iraq war.  The Left had a critical message to convey which might have saved the country from the fiasco, but its record of protest silliness left it marginalized in the media, and the bad habits of letting everyone say their own thing meant the message got muffled.  Despite the odiousness of the organization, I drove to DC to take part in the ANSWER protest on MLK Day in 2003, hoping that a mass demonstration of opposition might change the media narrative.

Unfortunately, as we now all agree, it was a complete mess.  While I'd wager that 95% of the marchers were sane and focused, the stage at the rally on the mall was overrun with every last form of Leftist aggrievement, from slavery reparations to Tibet to abortion access.  About halfway down the route I found myself uncomfortably next to a Palestinian group leading chants of "long live the Intifada."  I finally lost it when, in the press of the crowd, someone pressed a heavy leaflet into my hands asking us to consider "peace online," advocating for open source software.  SOFTWARE! We were trying to stop an insane war, and someone thought it was a good idea to muddle the mess with screeds against Microsoft.  (I hate them as much as the next geek, but really!)

Returning to the Teabagging events (is there any better sign that the GOP has lost the young than that nobody along the way warned them about that name?), you have a group of people feeling powerless and increasingly at odds with the dominant political discourse.  They are convinced, as the Protest Left was, that the majority of the country would agree if only they knew, if only they heard a little more.  This isn't the beginning of a revival of political power, however, it's the beginning of a ride off to the la-la land of discombobulated nuttiness and well-deserved political irrelevance.

Take a word of advice from the Left, guys -- until you engage the country where it is, instead of scolding it about where you'd like it to be, you're going to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.  Until then, enjoy the shouting -- it's about all you'll get out of the teabags other than tea.