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« Increasing jobs and consumer spending to spark round of inflation | Main | Overnight Open Thread »
May 19, 2010

Michael Kinsely: It's Only Bad When You Do It

That's how I read him, at least.

Everything negative he says here of the Tea Party can be said with equal force of Democrats-- but of course he would never say negative things about the Democrats.

THE RIGHT-WING populist Tea Party movement has politicians of both parties spooked. Democrats fear it will bring so many Republicans to the boil, and then to the voting booth, that they will lose control of Congress.


A Harris poll released the last day of March reported that a third of all adults support the Tea Party, and slightly less than a quarter oppose it. Do they know what they are supporting, or opposing? The movement is not yet united on a single platform or agenda, like Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, which started as a triumph and ended as an embarrassment. The lack of specifics allows anyone who is just existentially fed up (and who isn’t, on some days?) to feel right at home. No one will demand to know what he or she is fed up with.

Any political party is an amalgamation of different interests, some utterly contradictory -- Muslims have flocked to the Democrats over the War on Terror and Republican support for Israel, which puts them at odds with Jews who have long called the leftward party home.

So -- what foreign policy does someone vote for when he votes Democratic?

Does Kinsley know? Does he even care any more? Do the Democrats even bother to clarify themselves on this point?

I suppose he's saying the Tea Party is more amorphous than a centralized political party, not that the Democrats are perfectly clear about their agenda and the Tea Party perfectly unsettled. To which I'd reply, 1) No, the Tea Party is just as clear as anyone, and 2) Even if it weren't, it's expected that a leaderless movement would be a little fuzzy. Without leadership and heirarchy and rules about membership, you can't ever enforce a party line.

On Web sites and in speeches, Tea Party Patriots reveal a fondness for procedural gimmicks (like a ban on congressional earmarks), constitutional amendments (term limits, balanced budget), and similar magic tricks or shortcuts to salvation. Apart from a general funk, though, the one common theme espoused by TPPs is the monstrous danger of Big Government.

Ah, so they do have a definable agenda: You just don't like it.

The Tea Party movement has been compared (by David Brooks of The New York Times, among others) to the student protest movement of the 1960s. Even though one came from the left and the other from the right, both are/were, or at least styled themselves as, a mass challenge to an oppressive establishment. That’s a similarity, to be sure. But the differences seem more illuminating.

First, the 1960s (shorthand for all of the political and social developments we associate with that period) were by, for, and about young people. The Tea Party movement is by, for, and about middle-aged and old people (undoubtedly including more than a few who were part of the earlier movement too). If young people discover a cause and become a bit overwrought or monomaniacal, that’s easily forgiven as part of the charm of youth. When adults of middle age and older throw tantrums and hold their breath until they turn blue, it’s less charming.

I think perhaps Kinsley's determination of the anti-war movement as being "charming" might have something to do with finding it generally amicable to his own liberal politics.

I point out that Kinsley's thesis here is that Tea Party isn't merely a movement he doesn't like -- that will certainly cause no surprises among his fans or his critics -- but that the party is objectively malformed and malfunctioning according to objective criteria. He tries dressing it up that way, but in the end, when it's time to actually put coin in the piggybank, he resorts, again and again, to a simple statement of I don' like 'em.

Well, bully for you.

Second, although the 1960s ultimately spread their tentacles throughout the culture and around the world, politically there was just one big issue: ending the war in Vietnam. No such issue unites the Tea Party Patriots. You might guess from some of their materials on the Web that the repeal of health-care reform is the TPPs’ Vietnam, their towering cause. But even for devoted TPPs, stripping health insurance away from people who’ve just gotten it is unlikely to summon the same passions that the activists of the 1960s brought to stopping a misguided war.

Again he resorts to a mere policy preference which he costumes and masquerades as some fundamental deficiency in intellectual rigor. He's decided that doing the evil thing (taking away fake government health insurance) isn't as passionate a cause as doing the good thing (stopping a war).

He offers no reason, apart from a liberal bent, why one of those goals is laudable and proper and the other is simply spleen dressed up in policy garb.

Not only do TPPs not have one big issue like Vietnam—they disagree about many of their smaller issues. What unites them is a more abstract resentment, an intensity of feeling rather than any concrete complaint or goal.

I seem to remember a shitload of "abstract resentment" and "intensity of feeling" on display among those anti-war activists -- who generally were activists for a whole smograstborg of trendy radical posture-politics -- than Kinsley seems willing to admit here.

He is attempting -- seriously attempting -- to cast the 70s Free Love Radical Shouters (and Bomb-Throwers) in the roles of Serious Political Therorists United Between One Tangible Goal.

Unless my television is lying to me -- and, Praise God, it never does -- my takeaway of the late-60s/early-70s hippie freakshow was inchoate rage at being young, privileged, and wealthy, and therefore in favor a stinky melange of goofball fashion choices maquerading as politics.

No nukes, free love, F--- the Pigs, communes, smash the state, Acid Messianism, end capitalism, Hippie-version Christianity, burn your bra, rob banks for the Palestinian cause... all of this and more was part of that pissed-off-at-their-parents rabble that Kinsley is attempting to cast as very disciplined and rational an serious-minded about one big issue.

The antiwar movement also worked, sort of. As did the civil-rights movement that preceded it. Antiwar protests ultimately turned the establishment itself against the war, though extracting us from it still took years. By contrast, the Tea Party Patriots, I predict, are just the flavor of the month: the kind of story that the media are incapable of not exaggerating. The antiwar movement and the 1960s changed America in numerous ways forever. The Tea Party Patriots will be an answer on Jeopardy or a crossword-puzzle clue.

Again, attempting to demonstrate how awful and unserious the Tea Party is, he resorts to mere opinion -- here, a prediction they'll be unsuccessful.

A final difference: although the 1960s featured plenty of self-indulgence, this wasn’t their essence.

Did he just claimed that pampered brats who want to fuck and smoke pot were not essentially self-indulgent? But were rather quite serious young men and women?

I think he did.

Unlike those joy-riding bong-blowing Good-Time-Charlie Tea Partiers, as you'll soon discover.

Their essence was selfless and idealistic: stopping the war; ending racism; eradicating poverty. These goals and some of the methods for achieving them may have been childishly romantic or even entirely wrongheaded, but they were about making the world a better place.

It was selfless and idealistic for a draft-aged man to want stop the war he was about to be drafted into?

Note that I don't need to claim that such a man was wrong. Most believe the Vietnam War was a mistake (either from the get-go, or in insufficient and feckless prosecution), and I don't want to litigate that case.

But he's claiming that it was "selfless" for a man -- let's say a man like Michael Kinsely, born in 1951, who would have been 17 and of draftable age during the Tet Offensive and through the subsequent years of escalation -- to oppose the war.

Selfless? He had no self-interest whatsoever in taking this position?


And "idealistic"? This was idealism only - the war was only an abstraction for him? There was no... say... tangible, concrete benefit that would accrue to him if the war were ended before his draft number came up?

Can Michael Kinsley not remember back to his 17th year? Is he quite certain he opposed the war purely on abstract, idealistic grounds?

I am making a big deal about this because he wishes to contrast his own "selfless idealism" with the Tea Party's lousy mercenary self-interest:

The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power. There is a nasty, sour, vindictive tone to the Tea Party that certainly existed in the antiwar movement and its offspring, but never dominated the atmosphere created by these groups.

Right. Well, Mikey, what you see as "selfless idealism" in, say, the millions of people gettin' paid by the federal government I see as naked self-interest. They want other people's money and have decided they can vote themselves it.

So I don't see that as you do, as all selflessly idealistic 'n shit. I see it as people gettin' paid out of other people's wages.

And I see the people whose wages are being taken as having a legitimate -- dare I say more legitimate? -- gripe about keeping their own.

You see, in the land of liberals like Kinsley, there's nothing whatsoever selfish or self-interested about millions of people voting themselves a raise in the form of health-insurance paid out of someone else's pocket.

But the moment those whose pockets have suddenly become lighter utter a peep of objection, it's time to start talking about "selfless idealism" versus a "nasty, sour, vindictive" feeling.

Like a mugger might selflessly, idealistically take my wallet, and then, having gotten the attention of a cop, I might, with a nasty, sour, vindictive sort of feeling, ask that at least get to keep the credit cards.

We will soon be learning that the Tea Party is also pretty stupid, because we think that we can balance the budget simply by cutting small-potatoes programs like the NEA or foreign aid or eliminating pork.

Some of us do think that -- and yes, some people aren't as up as they could be on budget math, or at least don't wish to understand the full dimensions of the problem.

And this makes the average Tea Partier different from the average Democrat in what way...? The average Democrat who thinks all we have to do is "tax the rich" and "end the war" and wait for Obama's 10% growth per year Era of Prosperity to wipe out the deficit?

It's true that many people believe that great goals can be accomplished with little pain -- and they believe that primarily because their politicians tell them that every day. And it's true, as Kinsley says, that Tea Party slogans often fail to recognize how much budgetary pain is on the horizon.

But before I decide, with him, that the Tea Party is more uninformed than most of the public, I really need him to point out the average Democrat in the middle class who actually understands that his taxes are going up -- and significantly so, not by just an ooch here or there -- to pay for all of the liberals' "selfless idealism."


“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. After all, who elected this monster?

Um, the current government? Liberals elected it, and people deceived by liberals.

This is nonsense on stilts. The Tea Party is trying to get the government under control, to which Kinsley says neener-neener, you elected it! Which isn't really true, and even it were, people are allowed to repudiate past bad votes.

This kind of talk is doubly self-indulgent. First, it’s just not true. Second, it’s obviously untrue. The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies.

You're going to see more of this sneer -- The government is paying you your money so of course you have the time to take off to go to tea parties.

Which is an odd thing for him to say, since he's not questioning where all those people showing up in favor of Obama are getting their free time from.

Students, union hacks paid out of coerced dues, the indigent... Odd for him to suddenly discover the principle that if you're getting money from the government, you ought not to be making demands on it!

I think I could live with that principle -- but could he?

And, by the way, the government is "writing checks to old people" who have paid money into the system for their entire lives, from their first ice-cream shop job at age 15.

How much did Obama's new health insurees pay into the system before getting all complainey?

This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it’s a huge cliché, robably available more than once in an average day’s newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about “the audaciousness and arrogance of our government,” and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service.

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.


What is most irksome about the Tea Party Patriots is their expropriation of the word patriot, with the implication that if you disagree with them, you’re not a patriot, or at least you’re less patriotic than they are. Without getting all ask-notty about it, I think a movement labeling itself patriotic should have some obligation to demonstrate patriotism in a way other than demanding a tax cut.

Yes, similar to how many on the left demonstrate their patriotism by demanding increased student loans, welfare, etc.

Again, it's only a bad thing when you want to keep some of your own money.

In their rhetoric, the Tea Party Patriots do not sound as if they love their country very much: they have nothing but gripes. Yes, of course, these are gripes against the government, not against the country itself. But that distinction becomes hard to maintain when you have nothing good to say about the government and nothing but whines to offer the country.

Again, a very strange charge from Kinsley -- the right has often pointed out that while the left claims to be "patriotic," they are forever criticizing America itself in savage terms -- and it has been pointed out that if someone attempted to claim to his wife that endless criticism and slander was the way he "showed his love," that wife wouldn't take too much solace in that.

But after years of making the case that such "dissent" was the "highest form of patriotism" -- that the greatest love of country is expressed by those who criticize it -- Kinsley decides to reverse field and start calling it unpatriotic.

Once again: It's only bad when you do it.

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posted by Ace at 08:46 PM

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