After the Wave

The Republicans, we are told, have capitalized on the country's anger and frustration in the face of a crippled economy. No doubt this is true. But it's also true that Republicans have always been better at appealing to voters' pride, both collective pride (patriotism or nationalism or national exceptionalism) and personal pride, whose ideological expression is individualism. The two dovetail nicely. Americans don't need the government to take care of them; they can take care of themselves, as long as the government doesn't get in their way. And it's the self-sufficiency of individual Americansthat makes ours the greatest country in the world, a country so great that it can have nothing to learn from other countries, or indeed from its own mistakes. We Americans teach the lessons of history; we don't learn them.

The more threatened and insecure we feel -- the more humiliated by job losses and foreclosures -- the more there is to be gained by politicians who know how to stroke our pride. If you're unemployed and could use some help from the government, pride might keep you from accepting it. It might even get you to resent a governing party that offers it, especially if someone can persuade you that the government's efforts to help are precisely what makes it so hard for you to find work. And if you're not hurting at a time when many others are, pride could convince you it's because of your superior thrift and industry. Thus has the GOP managed to exploit both the wounded pride of the unemployed and the impervious vanity of rich conservatives.

Despite all that's happened in the last five years, Tea Party politicians insist that regulation is for sissies. America doesn't have to lash itself to the mast like Ulysses. If private, unenforced virtue can't save us (and it can, it can!), then bring on the ruin -- as long as we can say we did it our way. Does the evidence suggest that people in countries with socialized medicine enjoy better health at less expense? Then to hell with the evidence. This debate isn't about public policy or medicine or even health; it's about freedom, damn it -- in this case, the freedom to have one's medical expenses paid for by entrepreneurial corporate bureaucrats rather than by that great alien monster, the federal government.

Last night I heard a newly elected Tea Party Republican explain that this election was about "philosophy," not politics. This impressive-sounding distinction is becoming popular on the Right. The Tea Party's ideals are so lofty, so pure, that they're above not only partisanship but politics itself. In truth, the only topic that seems to arouse the philosophical interest of Tea Party politicians is the intrinsic evil of big government and the intrinsic nobility of anything done in the name of individual liberty. (Their favorite philosopher -- maybe their only philosopher -- is Thomas Jefferson, because of his famous equation of good government with minimal government and because he gave us "self-evident truths," theTea Party's favorite kind. ) Details of policy aren't important. Details are for politicians, not philosophers. Asked how they plan to offset the $700 billion cost of renewing the Bush administration's tax cuts on annual income above $200,000-- or whether those cuts are so important that they justify adding to the national debt --Tea Party politicians talk vaguely about across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending, confident that most Americans think"discretionary spending" is just a fancy term for pork. On election night, no one could get the Republican victors to say how much they plan to cut and which particular programs will be affected. Their Olympian generality was invincible. Let the wonks shuffle their charts and scratch their heads nervously as they puzzle over the math. The philosophers have speeches to give and elections to win.

Another Tea Party term of art is "uncertainty" -- as in John Boehner's assurance last night that the GOP agenda "means ending the uncertainty in our economy and helping small businesses get people back to work." As Jonathan Chait pointed out before the election, there is nothing especially "uncertain" about the Democrats' agenda:

The parties do not differ over uncertainty. On taxes, Republicans want to keep the low Bush rates forever. Democrats want to phase out low rates on income over $250,000. The uncertainty is that the original Bush tax cuts had a phase-out date and we can't be sure which party will win. But Republicans winning does not reduce uncertainty any more than Democrats winning would....But just saying you think low taxes and low regulation is the key to economic recovery is both transparently self-serving and almost self-refuting -- after all, the economic crisis was precipitated by an administration that, for all its spending, was resolutely opposed to taxation of the rich and regulation of business. So expressing a desire to restore "certainty" is simply a way of presenting the pro-business agenda as a specific analysis of the current environment as opposed to straightforward special pleading.

The promise to end uncertainty is not only reassuring but also flattering. These may be uncertain times, but the American people are never uncertain. They are philosophers, holding fast to their certain, self-evident truths.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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