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June 18, 2010


Not sure what exactly was so insipid about the Bernstein piece - nor, to be anal about it, does it really employ psychoanalysis so much as draw on different philosophical arguments about the construction of the individual autonomous subject. Drum argues that Bernstein should use "history and politics" to understand the Tea Party "movement," but this seems to be exactly what Bernstein is doing: placing the resentment and bitterness expressed at Tea Party events within the context of the historical construction of the subject as an autonomous agent capable of directing its own life and avoiding dependency on others. This is a view of the self that has a history - it's not simply the way humans are and have always been.

When Drum limits "history" to late 20th century partisan politics in the United States, it seems he's simply displacing the puzzle rather than solving it. Listing other fringe movements that resonate with the current TP (as Drum does) only widens the scope of phenomena that need to be explained/understood without providing that explanation, which Bernstein at least seems committed to doing. Drum's message seems to be: why open up the box to see what's inside? That box is always there; don't worry too much about it. Nothing to see here folks.

I want to open the box - and I'm not sure why philosophy or psyhoanalysis shouldn't be tools of investigation. Can you give me a reason why they shouldn't?

I think Drum's analysis is extremely narrow. Drum assumes that Tea Partiers are dependent on the government financially. I think Bernstein meant that people are dependent on the government to handle larger issues: the financial crisis or the oil spill, because they are helpless to do anything about it. Whether or not the government is capable of handling those issues is another story...

RE: Dave's point -- I think it goes too far to ascribe Tea Party anger to a crisis of perceptions of individual autonomy. The simpler - and to me more powerful - explanation is that the movement is a response by conservatives who are angered by the combination of an economic crisis and a Democrat in power. To argue that specific events called their vision of the self into question seems both unnecessary and overgeneralized; I think some sort of response along these lines was inevitable given the state of the economy and Obama's election, and that the reasons that individuals participate will vary.

I would certainly agree that a good deal of the partisan rancor can be tied to these phenomena, but if attributing the TP to a crisis in individual subjectivity goes too far, then this model doesn't go far enough: keep in mind Drum's (only?) salient point is that the TP affiliates are generally better-off than your average American, which means that they would have been buffered somewhat during the great recession (relevant here is Raban's At the Tea Party in the NYROB from a few months back). Also much of the rancor at the events is directed not only at Obama but the so-called RINOs who have compromised the pure principles of small government and low taxes (i.e. individual initiative). I'm not accusing you of using an unmodified rational actor model here, but if the main cause of the "revolt" is economic insecurity than what explains the birthers and other such nonsense at these rallies? Are they just crazy flotsam that is given a voice because they amplify the general discontent? All I'm saying is that economic unease can't explain the incredible affect at these rallies - people literally crying that they have "lost their country." It's a complex phenomena, to be sure, and as such my main plea is that we shouldn't stop with "the crazies you will always have with you." Beliefs in individual autonomy in an inter-dependent world certainly would create friction that might manifest itself in some of the ways we're seeing. The intense affect at these events far outstrips what I see as being explained by a rational-actor model of behavior. Methodological pluralism!

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