Tea Party's embarrassing irony: How its ideal nation rejects basic American beliefs

Tea Party heroes like Rand Paul want a "democracy" in which politics' biggest questions may never be debated

Published June 21, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                  (AP/Stephan Savoia)
Rand Paul (AP/Stephan Savoia)

Of U.S. political culture’s many hypocrisies, few are more jarring than Americans’ ambivalence about democracy itself. Truth be told, despite its reputation as “the leader of the free world” and its history as the “arsenal of democracy,” America is a land where democracy is celebrated only in its most abstract and idealized form. Most everyone agrees that government of the people, by the people, for the people sounds pretty great. But when the reality of that principle is revealed — when all the happy talk of the greater good and the public will is replaced by the prosaic, undignified tedium of actual self-governance — millions of Americans, on both the left and the right, find themselves so disillusioned that they either reject politics entirely or, worse still, embrace an ideology so rigid and utopian as to serve as a kind of secular faith.

Once you’ve noticed it, Americans’ discomfort with the grit and grime of real-world democracy can at times feel omnipresent. Take Frank Capra’s beloved 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which Jimmy Stewart’s naive but idealistic Jefferson Smith is able to overcome the corruption and rancor of the U.S. Senate not through negotiation and compromise but because of his indomitable will, evidenced by his decision to filibuster to the point of exhaustion. Or to look at this pathology from the opposite end of the telescope, note how Netflix’s popular “House of Cards” series acknowledges the myriad trades and settlements of democratic governance but, through Frank Underwood, a protagonist who is both a master politician and a ruthless sociopath, presents this mode of behavior as fundamentally immoral and corrupt. The good guy keeps on fighting; the bad guy cuts a deal.

Or how about we leave the realm of popular entertainment (which admittedly is structured to celebrate the triumph of the individual above all else) and turn instead to actual American politics, where a lead actor since at least 2011 has been that group of dedicated and uncompromising right-wing ideologues known as the Tea Party. Indeed, if a recent Slate analysis of the Tea Party worldview from conservative pundit Reihan Salam is correct, it’s the Tea Party — more than what remains of Occupy Wall Street, or the Davos crowd  — that most stridently represents those citizens who reject actual, real-world American democracy. Salam jokingly refers to the U.S. of the Tea Party’s dreams as “Teatopia," but the reference to Utopia, Thomas More’s consciously fantastical dream-island, is more apt than he may want to believe.

Before getting into the tenets of Teatopia and why I think they’re so essentially anti-democratic, I want to be clear about what I’m not saying concerning democracy in America today. Most crucially, I do not mean that anyone who considers the U.S. government woefully in need of reform is against real-world democracy. A perception of D.C. as thoroughly corrupt is one of the American electorate’s few genuinely cross-partisan beliefs for good reason. In addition, I do not intend to imply that anyone who finds U.S. political culture too toxic to bear is anti-democratic at heart. It’s arguable, in fact, that the relentless conflict and spin that characterizes so much political media, with its constant willingness to deny the other side’s basic legitimacy, is more contrary to democratic values than the self-protecting apathy of an exasperated citizen.

What I’d argue, rather, is that the Tea Party’s philosophy of government (again, as understood by Salam) has embedded within it an aversion to basic democratic principles that goes far beyond a typical contempt for Washington, politicians and pundits. When Salam writes that Teatopia is founded on a commitment to a “robust federalism” intended to let “different states … offer different visions of the good life” and allow citizens to “vote with their feet” by moving to whichever state best reflects their values, he’s not describing a common aversion to corruption or a distaste for political theater. He’s describing a childish and essentially anti-political belief that a return to an Articles of Confederation-style U.S. order — in which each state is more of a sovereign unto itself than a member of a larger American whole — will produce 50 mini-nations where everyone basically agrees.

Democracy, it should go without saying, is not a system designed to tackle the problem of what to do when everyone is on the same page. You don’t need to venerate and inculcate the principles of compromise, pluralism and cooperation in a land where nobody questions what to do or even how to do it. An America in which “states and local governments” can, as Salam puts it, “let their freak flags fly,” and where the ultimate goal is to maintain what Salam calls America’s “normative diversity” (which he says “has less to do with ethnicity and race and more to do with the virtues that we as communities want to cultivate in our children, and that we want to see reflected in our collective institutions”) doesn’t even need a forum for debate. If the basic, irresolvable questions of identity that each generation must answer for itself — What do we value? Whom do we respect? What do we want from each other? What do we demand of ourselves? — are no longer contested, then, really, what’s the point? Just appoint a CEO of State for life, a charismatic technocrat to make sure the trains are running on time, and be done with it. 

If we take into account the recent Pew report on polarization, which found a full 50 percent of “consistently conservative” respondents saying it was important to them to live in “a place where most people share my political views” vs. only 35 percent of “consistently liberal” and 22 percent of “mixed” respondents saying the same, Salam’s “Teatopia” makes perfect sense. If you’re made uncomfortable by the very idea of sharing sidewalk with someone on the other side, why wouldn’t you pine for a future in which you’re so tucked away among your kind that you come to forget people who think differently even exist? If you think the major problem with American democracy today is a federal government that forces people from East Texas and people from the Upper West Side to come to some workable agreement, why wouldn’t you believe, as Salam says Tea Partyers do, that a loose confederation of 50 isolated states would produce “an Era of Good Feelings” in which nobody bickers because everyone agrees? It all makes plenty of sense.

Yet even if it’s reasonable, at least on its own terms, the animating spirit of Teatopia is also, at its core, childish. It reflects a psychological makeup that privileges certainty, loathes ambiguity, celebrates purity and is awash with a mild but persistent sense of vulnerability and fear. Teatopia is a place where one never has to wonder about the veracity of her basic assumptions about what Salam calls “the good life.” It’s a place where no one ever has to grapple with the uncomfortable reality of other human beings living full, rewarding lives while concurrently making major decisions one thinks are self-evidently incorrect. It’s a place where one need never acknowledge that there are people who dream vastly different dreams and, what’s more, believe they have just as much right as anyone to make those dreams come true. It’s a place where everything is OK, a return to a state of innocence in which the inherent loneliness of one’s own subjectivity is muted by constant external ideological reinforcement.

Like all utopias, it sounds nice. If they made a movie about Teatopia, I bet many Americans would be more than happy to fork over the $13 to see it. What it doesn’t sound like, though, is a recipe for effective, democratic government. But if you're someone who only likes democracy when it's idealized and abstract — someone who rejects the idea that the people of the United States constitute a single nation and must reconcile with one another accordingly —  I suppose you might survey the gridlock and dysfunction of D.C. today and conclude things could be worse.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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