Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What the Tea Partiers Want

I hold Jonathan Haidt in high respect because I think his book The Happiness Hypothesis is jammed with insight about psychology and human nature. Packed. FWIW, I tend to regard the self-help genre with high skepticism, because I think it's populated by too many opportunists, con folk, charlatans, etc, etc.  I hold Haidt as an exception.

So when my buddy let me know that Haidt had written an article called What the Tea Partiers Really Want, I was eager to read it. And Haidt didn't let me down. In attempting to find an on-point 3-paragraph excerpt that encompasses the gist of the article, it became very clear that there is in this case no substitute for reading the whole thing. Please do that!

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.

In the tea partiers' scheme of things, the federal government got into the business of protecting the American people—from market fluctuations as well as from their own bad decisions—under Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Great Depression, most Americans recognized that capitalism required safety nets here and there. But Lyndon Johnson's effort to build the Great Society, and particularly welfare programs that reduced the incentives for work and marriage among the poor, went much further.

Hope you read the whole thing. I even hope it leads folks to checking out The Happiness Hypothesis. I think Haidt is spot on with the idea that the best impulse of the tea party to re-establish a firmer link between rights and responsibilities, where honest good-faith effort is rewarded and laziness and deceit is punished. And FWIW, if you disagree with what Haidt says, please give me a better reason than the fact that the WSJ published it.


  1. Direct link to the Haidt article is HERE, 'cause your linkage led to me to the WSJ mobile front page.

    Short on time to post at this moment, but FWIW my short take from last February on what the Tea Party people want can be found HERE. And it can be wrapped up in one word of four short letters. LESS.

  2. You've intrigued me about the book, and I'll order it on your rec, but probably won't get around to reading it until after the election.

    I'm not quite as succinct as Tully, but my Tea Party synopsis is similar:

    "Frankly, I don't think the hodge-podge of interests that make up the Tea Party movement is all that hard to figure out. It is a group that self-selects by prioritizing one issue above all others - federal spending and the deficit. Get past that issue, and there is little policy agreement among the Tea Party factions. But that does not really matter, because in 2010 they agree one issue trumps all others - It's the spending, stupid".

    As regards Haidt's thesis - I am of two minds. I think he offers a lot of good insight into the Tea Party mindset, but not sure hanging this all on a "karma" framework is helpful, or even accurate.

    Like he says, the word karma carries a lot of baggage and I think that actually gets in the way of understanding a pretty straightforward Tea Party reaction to the excesses of this administration.

    One aspect of it that I do like - it ties very nicely to my divided government yin/yang icon/avatar.

  3. If we overlook the baggage that karma carries, I think the idea itself is sound: that TP folks and others have this sense of a broken compact. Much like the social compact, they feel there's an implied government compact that to whatever extent they submit to and accept governance, the government will act act justly and primarily on the people's behalf, not it's own behalf, and not on the behalf of special interests and party interests.

    Tully touched on this part of it when he said, at flyover notes,

    Less borrowing. Less spending. Less taxes. Less regulation. Less corruption. Less extreme partisanship. Less "social engineering" -- from EITHER side of the aisle. Less power-grabbing for special interests. And, most especially, less government intrusion into every single aspect of our lives.

    I boldfaced the aspects of his quote that I think speak to the general "broken compact."

    Tully's more take includes the aspects of less that fall along the lines of traditional small government conservatism, and I don't dismiss the validity of those.

    Obviously we have a long-running conflict in America between libertarian and egalitarian impulses. I recall someone (Huxley maybe?) maintaining that most people do not really want pure freedom, they'd be happy with a just master).

    That's a debate between conservatives and liberals that I can't solve. But I do think that in the context of current times and that quote, it's clear that far fewer folks will accept being mastered when the masters don't seem just, competent, or concerned about the right things.

    If our schools were teaching the everloving shit out of our kids, if our roads and bridges were fast, solid, magnificent byways, if our social security was generous and solvent, if we got timely, affordable, effective healthcare with a minimum of confusion and haphazardness, if there were plenty of good jobs, not that many folks would be bitching.

    Not saying we can afford or do all that, only pointing out that much of the dissatisfaction has to do with the failure to deliver.