The Tea Party’s Short Sip
“The Tea Party Jacobins” by Mark Lilla, in The New York Review of Books, May 27, 2010.
Populist movements of days past aimed to seize political power and use it for the benefit of “the people.” Not so with today’s Tea Party, observes Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla. It seeks to neutralize, not use, political power. It has only one thing to say: “I want to be left alone.”
Such “radical individualism” is not new to the American scene. It was the driving force behind both the 1960s-era shift to the left on social issues (sexual liberation, divorce, casual drug use) and the ’80s-era move to the right on economic issues (individual initiative, free markets, deregulation). Today’s Tea Partiers, “the new Jacobins,” as Lilla calls them, are characterized by two classic American traits: “blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.”
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