In the early 1960s, children of the baby boom sparked a new social-political movement to take on the establishment, tackle poverty, bring world peace and get "government" in the form of the military draft off their backs.
Almost half a century later, many members of that same generation can be found in a new uprising, as the "tea party" conservatives for whom the TEA stands for "taxed enough already."
The two movements have obvious differences, but I am most fascinated by how much they have in common: The tea partiers want freedom from obligations imposed by "big government" but not its benefits. They have more gripes than solutions and, as much as they call for "personal responsibility," they tend not to mind so much receiving the biggest items in the federal budget: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
I am not alone in noticing these ironies. A spirited debate has blossomed among the chattering classes as to how much the tea party conservatives have in common with the New Left in the 1960s — or not.
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Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, describes in the May 27 issue of the New York Review of Books how a "new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now."
A "radical individualism" links the two movements, says Lilla. "Anarchistic like the '60s, selfish like the '80s, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that.... Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob."
Yet other experts like activist-turned-author and professor Todd Gitlin bristle at the comparison. "The New Left began as a just movement for civil rights, against arbitrary authority and against the abuse of national power abroad. Over the course of years, it evolved — and in many cases devolved — toward a mood of reckless, go-it-alone embattlement," Gitlin wrote in a letter to the New York Times. "The tea party movement begins with atavistic delusions about the government and shows no signs of understanding, let alone addressing, the contemporary, out-of-control economy."
As a close observer of that era as a collegiate student journalist, I would argue that Gitlin is correct at least about the beginnings of the New Left before it grew, in a matter of years, too large for its founders to corral. But devolution happens faster these days. If the founders of the New Left were rigorously obsessed with structure, organization, agendas and position papers, the later offshoots like the Yippies and their "revolution-for-the-hell-of-it" bear a strikingly similar resemblance to today's right-wing insurgents and their galvanizing call for "big government" to "follow the Constitution" and "leave us alone."
Energized by rage, connected by the Web, cable TV, talk radio and other new media, the tea partiers actually take pride in their lack of formal leaders, structure, agenda or platform. I used to call the Yippie and "black power" movements "a slogan in search of an agenda." The tea partiers seems to think they're better off with just the slogans.
Such a deal. Without an agenda, structure or leaders to grapple with their many gripes, the tea partiers have no obligation to actually come up with solutions. After years of calling for people to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, as Michael Kinsley observes in an essay in the new Atlantic magazine, "these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility."
I'm not saying that tea party people don't work hard or pay a lot of taxes. I feel their pain. But for all of our complaints about "earmarks" and "waste, fraud and abuse," those two worthy efforts won't come close to paying for the popular entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare, which make up the biggest slice of our federal budget's pie.
"Throw the bums out," the protesters cry. Fine. But what do we tell the new bums who come in?