What Does the Tea Party Want?

I don’t know who in the New York Times asked J.M. Bernstein to explain the source of rage among Tea Party members, but it was an inspired idea. Bernstein is well versed in aesthetics and politics, particularly from a Hegelian perspective. In The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno and The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukacs, Marxism and the Dialects of Form, Bernstein demonstrated that to live in a modern, Westernized society is to life the life of a novel. Each one of us is psychologically deep and particularized, yet bound by rules and conventions–in fact, the rules and convention make us into who are are as individuals.

Bernstein isn’t interested in the Tea Party’s political positions, which are incoherent and contradictory. He wants to know why Tea Party members are so angry and so susceptible to fear-mongering lies. The Tea Party rebellion isn’t political, Bernstein says, it’s metaphysical and, therefore, wrong-headed. The freedoms that the Tea Party members want so desperately to be returned to them were never wholly theirs to begin with.

Here Bernstein turns to Hegel. According to Hegel, we have no identity, no rights until someone else recognizes that we have them. I can believe that I am handsome and intelligent, but they remain illusions until people start recognizing these qualities in me. Until an employer recognizes I am a productive, skilled worker and a bank recognizes that I’m a responsible person who pays his debts, my economic freedom will be severely curtailed. Few people are as free as the homeless, but they’re too invisible to have any meaningful freedom.

So from a Hegelian perspective, our freedoms are granted to us by the institutions of modern life, meaning not just the government, but Wall Street, big (and small) business, the courts, medicine, and so on. According to Bernstein, the Tea Party members aren’t really upset that they’ve been hemmed in by these institutions. Instead, the Tea Partiers are angry because they’ve recognized their dependence upon the institutions of modern life, and they feel jilted by these institutions.

Yes, jilted like lovers. Hegel claimed that love and friendship are models for freedom. When I love another person, I conjoin my egotistical desires with the loved one’s. Anything that enhances the happiness of my loved one also enhances my happiness. I can only fully realize my individual desires through the loved one. Only by acknowledging my dependence on another can I truly be free.

Of course, Hegel makes clear, love can also fade or go wrong. I can be rejected and get hurt. I may tell myself I can get along perfectly well without the loved one, that I can live a full life completely alone. My anger gives me strength to go on, or that’s what I tell myself. And that’s what the Tea Party members are telling themselves, Bernstein argues.

[T]he rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement [. . .] is the
sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob
called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made
clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them
as vulnerable.  And just as in love, the one-sided reminder of
dependence is experienced as an injury.  All the rhetoric of
self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just
the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive
without her beloved.

The analogy Bernstein offers may sound far-fetched, even silly, but no one else I’ve read offers a better explained the inchoate rage of the Tea Party movement. Its members clearly recognize their dependency on the institutions of modern life. What they want in place of those institutions, though, isn’t clear to anybody inside or outside the movement.

On this last point Bernstein suggests a disturbing possibility. Lovers can split up, but in political life there are no breakups, only revolutions. The Tea Party movement has no set of policy proposals, no solutions to any concrete problems facing the country. Their desire for freedom is nothing less than the desire for uninhibited destruction. Bernstein concludes grimly,

In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. [Mark] Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins’ fantasy of total freedom, “a fury of destruction”?

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