Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Does the Tea Party Really Want?

Here are some bits from an article in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
What do the tea partiers really want? The title of a recent book by two of the movement's leaders offers an answer: "Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto." The authors, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, write that "We just want to be free. Free to lead our lives as we please, so long as we do not infringe on the same freedom of others."

This claim should cause liberals to do a double-take. Isn't it straight out of John Stuart Mill, the patron saint of liberalism?


Because a generalized love of liberty doesn't distinguish tea partiers from other Americans, liberals have been free to speculate on the "real" motives behind the movement. Explanations so far have spanned a rather narrow range, from racism (they're all white!) to greed (they just don't want to pay taxes!) to gullibility (Glenn Beck has hypnotized them!). Such explanations allow liberals to disregard the moral claims of tea partiers. But the passion of the tea-party movement is, in fact, a moral passion. It can be summarized in one word: not liberty, but karma.

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "action," and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity.


Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s seemed intent on protecting people from the punitive side of karma. Premarital sex was separated from its consequences (by birth control, abortion and more permissive norms); bearing children out of wedlock was made affordable (by passing costs on to taxpayers); even violent crime was partially shielded from punishment (by liberal reforms that aimed to protect defendants and limit the powers of the police).

Now jump ahead to today's ongoing financial and economic crisis. Again, those guilty of corruption and irresponsibility have escaped the consequences of their wrongdoing, rescued first by President Bush and then by President Obama. Bailouts and bonuses sent unimaginable sums of the taxpayers' money to the very people who brought calamity upon the rest of us. Where is punishment for the wicked?

As the tea partiers see it, the positive side of karma has been weakened, too. The Protestant work ethic (karma's Christian cousin) holds that hard work is a duty and will bring commensurate rewards. Yet here, too, liberals have long been uncomfortable with karma, because even when you create equal opportunity, differences in talent and effort result in unequal outcomes. These inequalities must then be reduced by progressive taxation, affirmative action and other heavy-handed government intervention. Such social engineering violates our liberty, but most of us accept limitations on our liberty when we agree with the goals and motives behind the rules, such as during air travel. For the tea partiers, federal activism has become a moral insult. They believe that, over time, the government has made a concerted effort to subvert the law of karma.


The tea party is often said to be a mixture of conservative and libertarian ideals. But in a study of 152,000 people who filled out surveys at, led by my colleague Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California, we found that libertarians are morally a bit more similar to liberals than to conservatives.

Libertarians are closer to conservatives on two of the five main psychological "foundations" of morality that we study—concerns about care and fairness (as described above). But on the other three psychological foundations—group loyalty, respect for authority and spiritual sanctity—libertarians are indistinguishable from liberals and far apart from conservatives. We call these the three "binding" foundations because they are the psychological systems used by groups—including religious groups, the military and even college fraternities—to bind people together into tight communities of trust, cooperation and shared identity. When you think about morality as a way of binding individuals together, it's no wonder that libertarians (who prize individual liberty above all else) part company with conservatives.


The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children's education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.
I enjoy Haidt's theorizing. But I find "karma" far too simplistic. Try a thought experiement to "explain" Nazism in terms of one simple concept: antisemitism? nationalist revenge for defeat in WWI? conspiracy by bankers and industrialists? There is no one simple answer. It was a timely confluence of many forces congealed by specific historic facts, chief among them was the personality of Adolf Hitler.

Similarly, the Tea Party is not the result of one single concept working its way through the body politic. It is more complex. I think Haidt's idea of karma is interesting and useful as a tool to explore, distinguish, and analyze. It is probably even part of the overall answer. But it isn't a single world complete explanation for why the Tea Party now.

Thinking of the Tea Party as a "karma" movement is useful to distinguishing liberatarians from conservatives and it is useful as a device to show that the current populist upsurge is cynically manipulated by the same anti-tax big business interests who use previous social conservative issues to fire up the base: abortion, gays, prayer in school, sex education, flag burning, etc. The debate will go on for decades because this conflict is deep and has many roots.

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