A Further Perspective

Goldilocks at the Tea Party

Always too hot or too cold.

By 5.24.10

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The people who loathe the Tea Party movement most are progressive observers with a Goldilocks problem. Because Republicans pay at least lip service to the idea of smaller government, they have the luxury of treating Tea Party sympathizers with the cautious good will that smart pedestrians extend to strange dogs. Progressives, by contrast, want to increase the scope of "public service," and this motivation puts them at odds with anyone trying to pull the Constitution out of the mothballs into which all three branches of government have shoved it, beginning perhaps with Roe v. Wade and extending at least through Obamacare. Enter Goldilocks: Remember how the little blonde trespasser passed judgment on food and furniture that was not her own? Progressives do the same thing when talking or writing about convictions for which they have little sympathy and even less understanding.

Some of us appreciate the checks and balances devised by thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Other people claim not to understand what at least one writer calls "conservatives' fetish for the Founding Fathers."

Fetish is a revealing noun that more commonly keeps company with charms and sexual proclivities than with the founders of our republic, but any writer can have a bad day in the vocabulary bin, so let's bracket objections to curious word and look at the argument advanced by Salon contributor Gabriel Winant as though it were serious: In the 1790s, Winant suggests, capitalism required government strong enough to "drag people into the free market," or they might have been content to scratch out a living as farmers and craftsmen who valued their privacy more than their bank balances. That shaky thesis ignores large numbers of merchants in colonial Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, but it's just the setup for Winant's main complaint, which is that only white Protestant men in the Founding era ever had a chance to grab for the brass ring. To him, that shortcoming means game, set, and match for the progressive point of view, roughly paraphrased as "what's the point of looking for instruction from dead bigots whose minimally positive legacy has been obscured by generations of conservative blather?"

But Winant's got the wrong game going, which is why I'm wearing a catcher's mitt and wondering whether he can throw a pitch over the plate. The Salon contributor thinks that because the Articles of Confederation were unworkable and the Constitution did not rule out slavery, the idea of limited government is bunk. My high school Latin teacher would have called that a non sequitur. My history teacher would have laughed. Yet Winant writes with hilariously misplaced confidence that we who disagree with him suffer from "uninformed nostalgia for the 1790s as a mythical time when we were a nation of Ayn Rand characters, all six-foot-five, straight-backed, square-jawed, and buying and selling free of encumbrance." One can only grin at the multitude of Founding Fathers and mothers (James Madison, Henry Knox, Abigail Adams, and so on) who come nowhere near that lazy description.

Anything a student of American history might say to Winant is mere prequel to the reactions from latter-day Goldilocks impersonators who still cannot fathom how a Republican won the so-called "Kennedy seat" in Massachusetts, why Rand Paul cruised to victory in Kentucky, or when party-switching porkmeister Arlen Specter lost in Pennsylvania.

The Goldilocks response comes (conveniently) in three different ways. Progressives who say "this porridge is too hot" think the Tea Party is tainted by racism, beholden to special interests, and committed to nothing nobler than saying no.

Progressives who say "this porridge is too cold" think the Tea Party movement incubates anti-government sentiment, different in degree but not in kind from what motivated Tim McVeigh to bomb the federal building in Oklahoma City back when the only tea party anyone talked about involved overtaxed subjects of King George III dumping Earl Gray and Oolong into Boston Harbor. For the moment, these Goldilocks are content to paint the Tea Party as calculating and cynical, but they hope for the sake of their own moral superiority that a Tea Party rally will someday, somewhere turn violent.

The third progressive reaction to the Tea Party movement ("this porridge is just right") is less common but funnier than the other two.

Rather than dwell on the frightening implications of having Goldilocks confront bitter gun-clinging Father Bear or narrow-minded and annoyingly fecund Mother Bear, some progressives stake their collective hopes on the Tea Party movement as Baby Bear, because what is small and stupid does not have to be feared.

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal pointed to Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell as holding this point of view, because Rendell apparently thinks that there is no Tea Party movement, just a motley collection of media-savvy citizens for whom "taxed enough already" is an excuse to march on the offices of politicians burdened by the thankless task of representing their inferiors. Pundit Michael Kinsley appears to agree with Governor Rendell. But as John Hayward observed tartly, "The entrenched political elite would be much better off if their fantasies of surly voters driven by personal animosity toward President Obama, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi were true." Unfortunately for that point of view, the Tea Party movement is powerful "precisely because it's not shallow."

Will the various Goldilocks impersonators on the left figure that out? Not as long as there are chairs, lunches, and beds to try out, and dimwitted smiles to be offered as payment when the three bears return home to find that a trespasser crusading for social justice has broken the "just right" chair and eaten the "just right" porridge.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.