About 40 years ago, a social movement arose to destroy the establishment. The people we loosely call the New Left wanted to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution.
Today, another social movement has arisen. The people we loosely call the tea partiers also want to destroy the establishment, take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution.
There are many differences between the New Left and the tea partiers. One was on the left, the other is on the right. One was bohemian, the other is bourgeois. One was motivated by war, and the other is motivated by runaway federal spending.
But the similarities are more striking than the differences. To start with, the tea partiers have adopted the tactics of the New Left. They go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches and extreme statements designed to shock polite society out of its stupor. This mimicry is no accident. Dick Armey, one of the spokesmen for the tea party movement, praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left.
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These days the same people who are buying Alinsky's book "Rules for Radicals" on Amazon.com are, according to the company's software, also buying books like "Liberal Fascism," "Rules for Conservative Radicals," "Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left," and "The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party." Those last two books were written by David Horowitz, who was a leading New Left polemicist in the 1960s and is today a leading polemicist on the right.
Members of both movements believe in what you might call mass innocence. Both movements are built on the assumption that the people are pure and virtuous and that evil is introduced into society by corrupt elites and rotten authority structures.
Because of this assumption, members of both movements go in big for conspiracy theories. The '60s left developed elaborate theories of how world history was being manipulated by shadowy corporatist/ imperialist networks -- theories that live on in the works of Noam Chomsky. In its short life, the tea party movement has developed a dizzying array of conspiracy theories involving the Fed, the FBI, big banks and corporations and black helicopters.
Members of the tea party right, like the members of the New Left, worry that the corrupt forces of the establishment are perpetually trying to infiltrate the purity of their ranks.
Because of this assumption, members of both movements have a problem with authority. Both have a mostly negative agenda: destroy the corrupt structures; defeat the establishment. Like the New Left, the tea party movement has no clear set of plans for what to do beyond this golden moment of personal liberation.
Recently a piece in Salon astutely compared Glenn Beck with Abbie Hoffman. In it, Michael Lind pointed out that the conservatives in the 1960s and 1970s built a counterestablishment -- a network of think tanks, activist groups, academic associations and political leaders who would promote conservative ideas and policies.
But the tea partiers are closer to the New Left. They don't seek to form a counterestablishment because they don't believe in establishments or in authority structures. They believe in the spontaneous uprising of participatory democracy. They believe in mass action and the politics of barricades, not in structure and organization. As one activist put it recently on a tea party blog: "We reject the idea that the Tea Party Movement is 'led' by anyone other than the millions of average citizens who make it up."
For this reason, both the New Left and the tea party movement are radically anticonservative. Conservatism is built on the idea of original sin -- the assumption of human fallibility and uncertainty. To remedy our fallen condition, conservatives believe in civilization -- in social structures, permanent institutions and just authorities, which embody the wisdom of the ages.
That idea was rejected in the 1960s by people who put their faith in unrestrained passion and zealotry. The New Left then, like the tea partiers now, had a legitimate point about the failure of the ruling class. But they ruined it through their own imprudence, self-righteousness and naive radicalism. The tea partiers will not take over the GOP, but it seems as though the '60s political style will always be with us -- first on the left, now the right.
THE NEW YORK TIMES