»  The American Conservative

August, 2010

   Prole Tax

Tea Partiers revolt, but government still wins

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"If there is hope, it lies in the proles," confided Winston Smith to his diary in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. This turned out to be an optimistic illusion. The low-class proles, the most intelligent or charismatic of them marked down for elimination by the Thought Police, stood no chance against the smart managerial elites of the Inner Party. Easily bamboozled and whipped up into a war frenzy, their coarse senses sated by pornographic entertainments, the proles of Orwell's fictional Oceania had no real hope, no future prospect of anything but, as an Inner Party member explains to Winston, "a boot stamping on a human face — forever."

Present-day Oceania — or, as we say, "the West" — isn't nearly as brutish as Orwell's dark vision.We have open meritocracies in which intelligent prole youngsters, far from being liquidated, are welcomed into the upper classes. Nor are those upper classes a tightly organized Inner Party ruthlessly dedicated to self-preservation. They are only a loose — though increasingly endogamous — stratum, a sort of free-range Inner Party. They do have a common ideology, to be sure, but it is comparatively rational and humane, as state ideologies go, rooted in Enlightenment universalism and disgust at the excesses of industrial-age nationalism, colonialism, and racism.

The Republican Party of today nonetheless displays a shadowy resemblance to Orwell's dystopia. Listening to conservative intellectual acquaintances gushing over the Tea Party movement, I hear Winston Smith's diary entry murmured in the background: "If there is hope, it lies in the proles."

Is there hope for conservatism, though? And if there is, does it lie in the proles? In the present political configuration, that would indeed be the Tea Partiers, most of whom belong to the petty bourgeoisie of private-sector worker bees, retirees, and small businessfolk. Do they stand a chance against the alliance of bureaucratic overclass and tax-consuming underclass?

The possibility that they do was raised following the June 8 "mini-Super Tuesday" primaries. The star was Sharron Angle, who won the Republican primary for Harry Reid's senate seat in Nevada. Angle has promoted a raft of positions guaranteed to get conservative hearts a-thumping: abolition of the Department of Education, withdrawal from the UN, privatization of Social Security, skepticism about climate change, and so on. With Tea Party support she handily trounced establishment-Republican Sue Lowden, who had the endorsements of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

This was a heady triumph, especially in that it came so soon after other primary victories against GOP establishment candidates, such as Rand Paul's win in the Kentucky Senate race. Even where the news was bad on mini-Super Tuesday, it had bright spots. California victors Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, overclass Republicans both, made grudgingly positive noises about enforcing immigration law, a position well out of the establishment consensus but popular among Tea Partiers. Nobody imagines that either candidate would lift a finger to make good on her restrictionist rhetoric, but that Fiorina and Whitman felt obliged to make suitable noises is encouraging evidence for the effect of prole pressure.

But looking at what military strategists call "the correlation of forces," optimism is hard to sustain.

Foremost among the forces opposing any advance of conservatism is the tenacity with which the legal-academic liberal component of the overclass controls the discourse. Rand Paul found out all about this in his now-famous exchange with Rachel Maddow concerning Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination in "public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce," interpreted by the courts to mean every small-town bar, diner, and lemonade stand. There are good and interesting arguments to be made here, pro and con, but they lie outside the zone of overclass-approved discourse. In attempting to make them on a public medium, Paul exposed himself to accusations of eccentricity — or worse, of harboring unkind thoughts about colored people.

Sharron Angle will not likely fall into that trap. She is not an intellectual libertarian keen to elucidate knotty points of political philosophy. There are libertarian strands in her rhetoric, but they are of the more folksy Western sort, deftly plaited with religious traditionalism.

Yet there are other traps. "This is going to be like Scott Brown in Massachusetts," said Amy Kremer, a local Tea Party organizer working for Angle. She seemed oblivious to the irony in her words. Scott Brown's January triumph, seizing Teddy Kennedy's old Senate seat, had been inspirational to many conservatives. The bloom came off the rose in late February when Brown was one of five GOP senators to vote cloture on Obama's "jobs bill."  "Without leaning a bit to the left he is not likely to be elected to a second term," explained The Economist. What could be more important than getting a second term? Conservative principle? Ha!

Brown could serve as a poster boy for the genteel "reform conservatism" promoted by columnists David Brooks and David Frum. Their program is one of Bush-era militarism abroad combined with "sensible" conservatism at home — curtailing affirmative action, attrition of illegal immigrant numbers, etc. — and garnished with some social-democratic sprinkles: prison reform, conservation, "improved education." How many Scott Browns will the grass-roots Right elect for every Sharron Angle?

The Tea Partiers themselves seem to be losing support. A Washington Post poll much circulated among GOP policy wonks showed favorable-unfavorable views of the Tea Partiers moving from percentages 41-39 on March 26 to 36-50 on June 6. This might be a transient reaction to the oil spill — a public desire for effective government action translating somehow into disdain for Tea Party smaller-government fiscal restraint.

But it might also be erosion caused by the steady drip of scorn for the Tea Party movement coming from overclass news organs and commentators on both sides of the partisan spectrum. For the Left, the Tea Partiers' emphasis on fiscal restraint is a dagger at the heart of liberals' permanent project of increasing federal power via taxation, regulation, litigation, and the multiplication of welfare-state client groups through mass immigration. The establishment Right, too, has reason to undermine grassroots populists: to the GOP's insider class, the Tea Partiers and their demands for budgetary discipline — not "compassionate" or "heroic" conservatism — represent an impertinent repudiation of the Bush presidency.

Bush Republicans, with their dreams of democratizing the globe and outspending liberals at home, are still a big box on the correlation-of-forces diagram. The spending extravaganzas, counter-productive wars, multiculturalist debasement of bank lending, and ensuing fiscal collapse have done nothing to dent their confidence. Just pick up a copy of Newt Gingrich's recent book, which is brimful of exuberance.

Can they bring the Tea Partiers into the establishment fold? I bet they can — but it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Even if Republican moderates and modernizers retain control of the party, the momentum of events will pull the entire country in the direction of retrenchment. For one thing, the fiscal restraint being urged by the Tea Partiers is no longer one policy option among many. Bush Republicans, and even Democrats, will have to re-tool their policies for the straitened economic circumstances we are heading into. State bankruptcies, a withering dollar, market stagnation, and entitlement rolls swollen with retiring Boomers will drive all parties to frugality.

The differences between Republican factions then dwindle, and accommodation becomes easier. If big spending is impossible, there can be no big-spending wing. Even the picayune social-democratic nostrums of the reform cons may prove beyond our means. The future shape of the intra-Republican conflict depends on how bad things get. What are we looking at here? A decade or so of bumping along the bottom? A gradual slide down to some post-Perón Argentinian level of governmental dysfunction? Sudden, total systemic collapse?

We shall get the Tea Partiers' fiscal restraint nolens volens. The spending ambitions of future administrations, Republican or Democrat, will be restrained by force of circumstances. Yet it by no means follows that we shall get smaller government. Battleships, bailouts, and Medicare enhancements are mighty expensive. Attorneys, regulators, judges, and diplomats are cheap, though. How these servants of the state are used — how aggressively, under what guiding philosophy — is at least as determinative for the liberty of citizens as numbers on the nation's balance sheet.

Power is never given up willingly. Compelled to spend less, and then even less, on a downward-sloping graph, administrations of either party as currently constituted would show tremendous ingenuity at maintaining and strengthening their grip on our lives. Certainly a Democratic administration would find ways to impose more social control through legal, regulatory, and tax bossiness. A Republican administration might do the same, in a spirit of reform-con-style meddling and the professional politician's desire always to be seen doing something. They might even find a way to continue the war against evil on the cheap, via more battlefield automation and proxy armies.

Some libertarians and hard-right conservatives subscribe to a kind of millenialism: soon, they dream, the contradictions inherent in the statist system — its demographic pressures and out-of-control fiat currency — will bring the whole thing crashing down. Then the proles will inherit the earth, and freedom will prevail by default. But there is another, likelier possibility: consider what happened to Rome or the British Empire once they passed the point where they were "too big to fail." Whether the Inner Party maintains its grip on the nation even as it loses the world or the rule of law itself falls to barbarism, some boot will continue stamping on the human face.