Thursday, October 17, 2013

Would you like some tea with your Kulturpessimismus?

I think that Fareed Zakaria is a tad too optimistic about the likelihood of a certain breed of American right-winger deciding to abandon his fears of the impending liberal-socialist apocalypse.

But he makes some perceptive comments about the pre-history of the Tea Party phenomenon and its role as a bearer of a distinctive kind of cultural pessimism. 

Modern American conservatism was founded on a diet of despair. In 1955, William F. Buckley Jr. began the movement with a famous first editorial in National Review declaring that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” John Boehner tries to tie into this tradition of opposition when he says in exasperation, “The federal government has spent more than what it has brought in in 55 of the last 60 years!”

But what has been the result over these past 60 years? The United States has grown mightily, destroyed the Soviet Union, spread capitalism across the globe and lifted its citizens to astonishingly high standards of living and income. Over the past 60 years, America has built highways and universities, funded science and space research, and — along the way — ushered in the rise of the most productive and powerful private sector the world has ever known.

At the end of the 1961 speech that launched his political career, Ronald Reagan said, “If I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But the menace Reagan warned about — Medicare — was enacted. It has provided security to the elderly. There have been problems regarding cost, but that’s hardly the same as killing freedom.

For most Americans, even most conservatives, yesterday’s deepest causes are often quietly forgotten. Consider that by Reagan’s definition, all other industrial democracies are tyrannies. Yet every year, the right-wing Heritage Foundation ranks several of these countries — such as Switzerland — as “more free” than the United States, despite the fact that they have universal health care. 
One might also stipulate that Zakaria is a bit too one-sidedly triumphalist about all things bright and beautiful in post-war America. 

Still, he makes an important point. 

But do I think that reasonable arguments like this will matter to the true-believers? For an answer, I offer some comments from Bruce Sterling on the Tea Party that I posted last year (which somehow seems like an eternity ago):

It's always "the worse, the better" with these Trotsky-style fanatics. Every failure, rejection and common-sense setback galvanizes them to new extremes of faith-based ideological weirdness. As someone who hangs out in Europe, I'm used to bizarre political movements, but the Tea Party is truly impressively strange by anybody's standards. Acidheads have had more coherent thinking than these Creationist Randite gold-bar-eating pro-coal zillionaire market fundie people. They lost the American election, but winning one and governing a superpower never seemed to be on their agenda. That hasn't discouraged them, though. They've got ladder notches and fallback positions all the way to the prepper graveyard.

Of course, this kind of paranoid fear-mongering isn't historically unique to the US: in 1945 the Daily Express was warning readers against a Labour Party victory in 1945 with editorials under titles such as 'Gestapo in Britain if Socialists win'. More recently, your average reader of the Daily Mail (which I could definitely imagine using that 'Gestapo' headline during the next British elections) has also decided that the only good things about Britain exist in the dimly remembered past.

Nor, naturally, is cultural pessimism exclusively the property of the political right.

But it is not encouraging -- as I happened to be saying to a colleague earlier today -- that a mere five years after he left office George W. Bush seems, in retrospect, so...moderate.  

The really interesting development in Washington, I think, is not the conflict between the Tea Party and the Democrats -- which, as loud and fun as it is, makes for pretty predictable theatre -- but rather the signals that the grown-up business types of the sort that used to dominate the Republican Party I remember in my youth just might be getting a bit nervous about what one of them calls 'the Taliban minority'.

I mean, American politics has now become a distant spectator sport for me. I live in a country where the main conservative party has its eye firmly on the nation's economic interests and where a laughable figure like Ted Cruz would have little chance of being taken seriously as a Kanzlerkandidat.

Believe me: I am thankful -- every day -- for the generally boring sensibility of German politics. 

And, hey, even the Germans are showing the odd sign of optimism these days...

It's a funny old world.

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