Tea & Culture

At Plumb Lines, David Schaengold raises a good question about my latest round of teablogging:

Isn’t there some worry that Friedman might be right? That we’ve reached precisely that stage of history where innovation requires despotism? Hence all the articles about the future of Authoritarian Capitalism. In which case despotism would still be despotism and liberty still liberty, but Friedman, while wrong to prefer despotism, would be right in a technical way. And of course the friends of liberty would in that case face a much more diabolical foe than the Mustache of Understanding. […]

This folly hardly seems unique to Friedman. Isn’t it shared by most thinkers about what we now call politics? Is this the same as the Front-Porch critique of the GWB “go shopping” moment or the persistent reference to American citizens as “consumers”?

As potent as the critique of go-shopping Republicanism can be, anyone who’s followed this past year’s back-and-forth between FPR and Pomocon probably at least senses that my line of attack is fairly different. It’s not that I think organic food is ridiculous, or that I want Walmart to finish conquering the world and deliver cheap, safe drugs to the masses in partnership with the federal government. A Rieffian insistence on the importance of cultural authority does not need to extend, I think, to the culture-first communitarianism often advanced by conservatives utterly disenchanted with the American political environment in general and movement conservatism in particular.

Again, it isn’t that I don’t appreciate the possibilities and disciplines opened up in one’s life by a Porcheresque or Crunchy Con turn. After all, starting a family, as I did last year, is an absolute obstacle to careerism, especially of the type that requires long idle thoughtful moments at the keyboard; after all, a family demands a certain amount of space, and I’m in the process of moving into a residence with a front yard, a back yard (with garden plot!), and — lo! — a front porch. Though I will not be raising chickens, I will be painting large canvases in the sun, etc.

What is it, then? I won’t accuse my culture-first friends of being antipolitical; they’re often fans of Christopher Lasch, for whom any culture worthy of the name had to craft true citizens. Lasch’s left conservatism deserves, in this bottom-up way, a comeback that its top-down, Carteresque complement does not. But it still seems to me that critics of go-shopping Republicanism most often take proper citizenship to be an offshoot or consequence of a certain kind of culture. The right politics, that is, is derivative from the right culture. I don’t think they mean this in the way somebody would who sought to focus our attention on the kind of citizen a free individual will be when he or she is religious. Rather, the desired orientation is toward the kinds of citizens that believing members of religious communities will be.

There’s no reason why Americans sympathetic to one or the other of these approaches shouldn’t be natural political allies — especially when the partisan alternatives they confront are animated by economic individualism on the one hand and economic collectivism on the other. Yet this array of allies and adversaries tends to mask, and has masked, the degree to which a certain strain of conservatism — the one I am associating with the tea partiers — opposes the excesses of economic individualism and collectivism more for politically foundational than culturally foundational reasons. Those who make culture foundational see individualist and collectivist economic thinking (and let’s make no mistake: these go together well) as inimical primarily because they destroy the social character of culture that rightly orders everyday life. Those whose problem with individualist and collectivist economic thinking is grounded in politics, not culture, have a much different issue. For them, economic individualism and collectivism are bad because both erode political liberty and our taste for it.

In the crude terms of our current understanding, the former camp is paleoconservative and the latter camp is neoconservative. But some of those in the latter camp — a more significant number, I bet, than we’ve got ourselves thinking — are just as seriously religious as their paleo or paleo-ish brethren. Their faith, however, is much more individualist and stoic in a manner neither at all captured by, say, moralistic therapeutic Deism. Sometimes, they are mega-church evangelicals, but the strain of faith I’m thinking of is much better symbolized by the semi-rural chapel than by the buddy-Jesus superdome. If you want an oversimplification, think of the country-gentleman’s piety of Lee and Jackson. I suspect their kind of piety has an underinvestigated lot to do with their appeal, where that appeal exists. True, as an organized strain of faith it was shattered by the failure to adequately confront slavery on the one hand and the decimation of the South’s cultural officer class during and after the Civil War. But it is a powerful ribbon running through the history of American Christianity, and the frustrations it has faced in maintaining political liberty through coalition-building have been coming to a head for some time now. To one side, economic individualists and Perot quirkiness; to the other, ’80s and ’90s-‘00s evangelicals, whose moral agenda, though generally shared, was so intense that too much in the way of political liberty was up for trade or sacrifice. Those coalitions having failed, along with, in a stroke of nice timing, establishmentarian party politics, there is a fresh opening for a fresh coalition. The working out of this coalition is what makes watching the tea partiers so fascinating, and the practical stakes so high.