Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tea Party Populism and America's International Relations

Walter Russell Mead's got an outstanding lead essay at Foreign Affairs, "The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalism." The discussion includes a fascinating comparison between two tea party factions on foreign policy: the "Palinites" and the "Paulites." And he embeds the roots of today's tea party in the deep tendencies toward "Jacksonian" populism in American history. An excerpt:
Antiestablishment populism has been responsible for some of the brightest, as well as some of the darkest, moments in U.S. history. The populists who rallied to Jackson established universal white male suffrage in the United States -- and saddled the country with a crash-prone financial system for 80 years by destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Later generations of populists would rein in monopolistic corporations and legislate basic protections for workers while opposing federal protection of minorities threatened with lynching. The demand of Jacksonian America for cheap or, better, free land in the nineteenth century led to the Homestead Act, which allowed millions of immigrants and urban workers to start family farms. It also led to the systematic and sometimes genocidal removal of Native Americans from their traditional hunting grounds and a massively subsidized "farm bubble" that helped bring about the Great Depression. Populist hunger for land in the twentieth century paved the way for an era of federally subsidized home mortgages and the devastating burst of the housing bubble.

Jacksonian populism does not always have a clear-cut program. In the nineteenth century, the Jacksonians combined a strong aversion to government debt with demands that the government's most valuable asset (title to the vast public lands of the West) be transferred to homesteaders at no cost. Today's Jacksonians want the budget balanced -- but are much less enthusiastic about cutting middle-class entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare ...

The Tea Party movement is best understood as a contemporary revolt of Jacksonian common sense against elites perceived as both misguided and corrupt. And although the movement itself may splinter and even disappear, the populist energy that powers it will not go away soon. Jacksonianism is always an important force in American politics; at times of social and economic stress and change, like the present, its importance tends to grow. Even though it is by no means likely that the new Jacksonians will gain full control of the government anytime soon (or perhaps ever), the influence of the populist revolt against mainstream politics has become so significant that students of U.S. foreign policy must consider its consequences.
Mead returns to the Palinite/Paulite split in later sections of the piece. And it's a good discussion for the most part, but being an establishment essay it ends up too abstract, even bland. Mead implies, for example, that significant residual strains of racism animate the tea party overall, but in fact institutionally the key tea party leadership has consistently repudiated the slightest inclinations toward racism in the ranks. Not only that, Mead overstates the Paulite influence on the tea party, and he understates how Paulite hostility to Israel in facts engenders the real racist tendencies on the populist right. David Swindle's recent essay on the Paulites at CPAC offers a powerful case study in the problems that faction poses for the conservative movement in America today. And in the end I'd say that the Palinites are much more powerfully representative of the traditional currents of U.S. foreign and national security policy. That said, Mead's correct to posit the lasting impact of populism on America's international relations, regardless of how the immediate tea party splits play out in the short run.

2 comments:

Wesley 'Whitey Lawful' Mcgranor said...
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Wesley 'Whitey Lawful' Mcgranor said...

Its the same neoconservative versus paleoconservative paradigm. Except for one thing - where are the paleoconservatives? The argument has its origins in the Rockerfeller Republicans versus Goldwater Republicans contrast of old. Such a contrast dwindled when paleoconservatives scrambled out of the Republican party in the 90's to the early 00's, where did they go...They came to an extent back to the Republican party?