Conservative is the new counterculture

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There’s Glenn Beck, explaining that progressivism is just revolutionary socialism, only with gradual change instead of sudden upheaval, effort within the existing system instead of violence, and consensus-building instead of dictatorial fiat. So it’s like, um, American democracy. Still, when you really think* about it, progressivism is just radical communism by another name, the same way your uncle is just your aunt with testicles. We can forgive Glenn Beck for confusing an established political idea with its complement, or for decrying the abuses of progressivism even as he praises his local library, since he is speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where up is down, black is white, white is also white, and conservatism—that age-old defender of institutions and tradition—has finally become the counterculture.

That’s the contention of Michael Lind’s excellent article at Salon, which is so filled with satisfying parallels that their weight eventually causes it to collapse into a list. Lind compares the political freeze-out that crystallized around the Republican Party after the Bush years to the conservative Presidential dynasty that began with Nixon, and the embittered denunciation of contemporary commentators like Beck, Limbaugh and Coulter to the up-against-the-wall-mothereffer absolutism of the 60s left. While it’s a little premature to compare Barack Obama’s first term to the twenty nearly unbroken years of Republican presidents that followed Nixon, Lind points out that the rhetoric is already in place. “A counterculture refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the rules of the game that it has lost,” he notes, and you can almost hear the rally outside, chanting and waving signs that declare the current government unconstitutional.

That the Tea Party has emerged as a national movement of political protestors who don’t want to get involved in politics itself bolsters Lind’s comparison. Like the radical left during the late sixties, 2010’s reactionary right doesn’t want your committee to revisit the incentive structure built into its draft of the health care bill. They want you to wake up! and realize that it’s We The People, not We The Government. That’s an interesting point to make when quoting from the foundational document of a system of government, but maybe that’s because it’s not meant as a literal statement. The Tea Party doesn’t want to change the laws; it wants to change the way you think about the federal government, not as a mutually agreed-upon system for implementing a near reflection of popular consensus, but as an authority that other people force upon you. They want you to join the counterculture.

“The Tea Party are the hippies of our time,” Lind writes, but he refrains from drawing the demographic conclusion: the Tea Party are the hippies of their time, too. The middle-class 15 to 30 year-olds of the late sixties are now the middle-class 55 to 70 year-olds who predominate in pictures of Tea Party rallies, and if they aren’t the same longhairs who carried signs around campus during the Summer of Love, they certainly grew up with them. The Tea Party is the product of a generation that considers lifestyle a more meaningful expression of politics than legislation, that still thinks of Steve Jobs as a bohemian because he wears jeans when he addresses his shareholders. Countercultural thinking comes naturally to them, as it does to most Americans raised on post-sixties marketing and the rhetoric of the good-looking rebel. Whether you’re arguing for free love or a free people doesn’t seem to make much difference.

Of course, hippies were to politics as the dog is to the refrigerator, and the most striking similarity between the Tea Party and the late sixties left may be their shared lack of impact on American governance. Still, elements of the American right that actually matter are adopting the a countercultural posture, too. Lind points out that, among the academics and intellectuals of the New Left, a suspicion of Enlightenment reason ruled the era, as stuffy old logic and formal education came to be seen as tools of the dominant culture. Similarly, the contemporary right has rejected expertise in favor of that old chimera “common sense,” and scientific positivism in favor of religion. Besides taxes, the great enemies of the contemporary right are Darwinian evolution and global warming, two scientific phenomena you can’t argue against without arguing against the primacy of science itself. Ben Stein droning about gaps in the fossil record seems superficially different from Shirley Maclaine going on about crystals and past lives, but the underlying worldview is essentially the same. America is a secular nation conceived in reason; once you start thinking of America as a hegemonic monoculture, secularism and reason become tools of hegemony by association.

The comparison seems less tenuous when you consider how much of the rhetoric of the contemporary right turns on words like “freedom” and “choice.” The GOP’s attack on health care reform stopped being about costs and the proper role of government pretty quickly, and talked instead of government takeovers and death panels and your right to choose your doctor. By extension, their opponent was a government bent on controlling individuals’ daily lives and forcing outliers back into the mainstream. How many hours have Glenn Beck and Fox News spent talking about the “indoctrination” of America’s youth by President Obama, or the secret campaigns to inject images of socialism into our subconscious? This is how the counterculture thinks of the mainstream: as a monolithic, totalizing force, taking our minds so it can take our money and our time. That the hero of the story is now free markets and prayer in schools doesn’t make the narrative any different.

All of it is hokum, of course. There is no mainstream culture in America, if for no other reason than pretty much every American thinks of himself as a member of the counterculture. As the Bible reminds us, though, just because something doesn’t actually exist doesn’t make the idea of it any less powerful. Michael Lind is right when he says that “in Glenn Beck, the countercultural right has found its own Abbie Hoffmann.” Let’s hope he’s wrong, though, when he says that the right’s current dedication to counterculture is the beginning of a twenty-year trend. America needs a serious conservative politics in 2010, just as we needed a serious liberal politics in 1968. We saw what happened when half the country devoted itself to a fantasy of rebellion forty years ago. For all its faults, the country was a little richer and a little healthier then, and it could weather the mass abdication of responsibility a little better. That’s not the case today, and if we don’t stop talking about tyranny and revolution soon, we might find out that living in a van for the summer isn’t always a choice.

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  1. I think I remember a younger, punkier Dan arguing that we needed a revolution, possibly violent, about ten years ago. What happened to that guy?

    Weren’t there only like 500 people at the tea party “convention”? How did this “movement” become a thing that people talk about? I suppose Fox News has nothing better to do and John Stewart neither for that matter, but isn’t this all really just a few cranks on the right that have always been there — paranoid, testy and dumb as always?

  2. I consider myself a non-violent kinda guy, you know, “live and let live”.

    If I saw Glenn Beck, I would by involuntary reaction, be forced to either puke, spit or perhaps fart on him. Not in that order, nor any one of those things in particular, perhaps all of them.

  3. As someone with a giant fist with the word revolution tattooed on my leg, I guess this officially pisses me off. Unlike the hippies or tea baggers, though, I’m actually politically involved and find reasoned argument to be a constraint on things I’m willing to say (at least when sober).

    An interesting question, then, is how does the so-called new counterculture compare to the left one that still exists in the punk scene, and was raging through all of the bush years? My favorite band, Rise Against, even has an album “Siren Song of the Counterculture” or consider Anti-Flag’s “Die for Government” and Against Me!’s “Protest Songs!” Some try to paint the struggle between the left and the right as one between equality and liberty, and this seems to fit, at least in rhretoric though not action, the cause of the Tea Baggers. What’s amazing though, is how so many poor people vote against their own economic interest and, gasp, people trying to improve their education. WTF.

    At least the hippies were cool with recreational drug use and casual sex. Things that at least make a shitty day a little brighter.

  4. The last counterculture had strong social policy influence as well as significant, lasting social impact including civil rights, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and much more.

    If we play our cards right the current counterculture can provide some desperately needed change in the all ends of the Monetary system.

    The concept of money has become obsolete. Hell, paper money is just that, paper, nothing more. Ron Paul is more popular every day because of that fact.

    For a long time a monetary system was a great tool to get people motivated, educated and productive. Now, machines do 90% of the lifting for the price of the resources they consume. Renewable energy is teasingly close to fulfilling Tesla’s goal of free power. When this happens what will we need money for? (think outside the box)

    If Progressive could play Monday morning quarterback using the experience of the hippies as game film they could get something good out of the Tea Baggers. We can finally get politics out of money.

  5. I dunno–I bet you could play a fun party game drawing parallels between any two out-of-power political faction’s responses to the ruling party.

    Your and Michael Lind’s thesis is worth considering, though–I wonder if the Tea Partiers can’t help but model slightly on the hippies, given the stranglehold on our popular culture the Boomers still have. Can you write a protest song today and not be compared to Dylan or Bob Marley? Can you hold a rally and not conjure images of sit-ins?

    Also, it’s interesting, well-phrased lines like this that keep me coming back to your blog: ““The Tea Party are the hippies of our time,” Lind writes, but he refrains from drawing the demographic conclusion: the Tea Party are the hippies of their time, too.”

    That, and other things. Like the making fun of Glen Beck.

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