News & Politics

Where Did David Brooks Get the Bizarre Idea That the Tea Party Crowd Resembles '60s Movements?

The Tea Party that worships Sarah Palin and screams for Barack Obama's birth certificate doesn't merit comparison to positive social movements of the 1960s.

There is a fresh interpretive fad in the young field of Tea Party Studies: The New Right of 2010 as the New Left of the 1960s.

According to this nascent meme, today’s conservative grassroots holds strong echoes of earlier radicalism on the left. The Tea Party movement that worships Sarah Palin and screams for Barack Obama’s birth certificate is, in this view, more than just the latest herpetic outbreak of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid “pseudo-conservatism.” It is a reincarnation of the New Left and 1960s counterculture. The Tea Partiers, it is becoming fashionable to argue, are the heirs not just of the John Birch Society and the young Barry Goldwater, but also of Students for a Democratic Society and the young Abbie Hoffman.

If this analogy smells suspect, it’s for good reason. Yet it appears to be gaining traction, especially among a certain breed of moderate with confused understandings of Tea Party conservatism, the New Left, and '60s counterculture. In late February, Michael Lind wrote a Salon piece in which he claimed, "The tea partiers are the hippies of our time…In Glenn Beck, the countercultural right has found its own Abbie Hoffman."

Although Hoffman was never a hippie (he called flower children "glassy eyed zombies" and passed through the civil rights and antiwar movements on his way to founding the Youth International Party in 1968), and Beck is neither exuberant nor radical (he is a sexually repressed Mormon businessman who exemplifies modern crackpot reaction), Lind’s strange comparison nonetheless found an admirer in David Brooks of the New York Times. Last Friday, March 4, Brooks expanded on Lind’s thesis in a column titled "The Wal-Mart Hippies." Echoing Lind, Brooks writes that, much like 1960s leftwing radicals, the Tea Partiers want "to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution." He called Lind's comparison of Beck to Hoffman “astute.”

"Obtuse" would be a better description, says Paul Krassner, a founding member of the Yippies and a friend of the late Abbie Hoffman. "Whereas the Yippies saw through the propaganda machine, the Teabaggers are soaked in it," explains Krassner. "We were active in a time of abundance, they are active in a time of economic catastrophe; so we fought villains and they fight scapegoats. Abbie Hoffman was a seeker of justice; Glenn Beck rationalizes injustice. Abbie was hysterically funny; he made people laugh and think simultaneously. Beck promulgates hysteria; he exploits the fear that he helps create. To link them as part of the same tradition is sixties bashing at worst and sloppy journalism at best.”

Brooks is a particularly sloppy practitioner of '60s bashing. He opens his piece by declaring, “About 40 years ago, a social movement arose to destroy the establishment [we] call the New Left."

This chronology places the New Left’s creation in 1970, around the time the movement peaked and imploded in a spasm of factionalist nihilism. The year of the New Left's birth was actually 1962, when Tom Hayden, then an undergraduate, conceived and coauthored “The Port Huron Statement.” This document and the new generational liberalism it symbolized did not aim, as Brooks claims, to destroy the establishment. It merely asked probing and fundamental questions about American society and the obligations of citizenship in what was then a deeply flawed and incomplete democracy.

No comparable document marks the creation of the Tea Party movement. In place of the “Port Huron Statement” and the proto-New Left works of scholars like C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman and William Appleman Williams, the Tea Partiers have "Santelli’s Rant," Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed and Glenn Beck’s "We Surround Them” Fox special costarring Chuck Norris.

In their rush to present a catchy frame for understanding the Tea Party, Lind and Brooks fail to think through the other half of the equation. Most flagrantly, Brooks treats the New Left and the counterculture as interchangeable phenomena. Although they increasingly overlapped as the decade wore on, they represent distinct wings of the 1960s. Listing the differences between the New Left and the Tea Party Right, Brooks writes: "One was motivated by war, and the other is motivated by runaway federal spending. One went to Woodstock, the other is more likely to go to Wal-Mart."

Leaving aside the fact that the famous concert in upstate New York was not a New Left event, the differences between Woodstock and Wal-Mart are not exactly minor. There is a vast and defining gulf separating the acts of screwing in the mud on acid, and bargain shopping for a new plasma screen on which to watch Fox News. Brooks is clearly proud of his term “Wal-Mart Hippies” (which he recently repeated during an appearance on the "Colbert Report") but the phrase is oxymoronic. There is little meaningful commonality between a youth movement based on the quest for authenticity, beauty and release, and a largely geriatric one based on anger, ignorance and fear.

But back to the New Left. Unlike Tea Party conservatism, the New Left from its earliest stirrings to its final crack-up was an intellectual movement, based not just on deeds and street protest, but also on books and ideas. It incubated during the late 1950s and early '60s on the state campuses of Wisconsin, Michigan and California, inspired by historians, social scientists and activists-theorists on the non-Communist left.

The same was true across the pond, where the British New Left coalesced around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the journal Studies and Left Review. This transatlantic movement may have spawned Little Red Book-waving posers and slogan screamers, but it also nurtured a new generation of serious critics and scholars, from the philosopher Michael Walzer to the historian Gabriel Kolko. 

No comparable firmament exists within 100 miles of the Tea Party movement. Even the late New Left at its most anti-intellectual constituted a veritable Enlightenment compared to what passes for political discourse in the Tea Party scene. The new conservative grassroots was born into the arms of Roger Ailes and nursed on Dick Armey-scripted email alerts. In place of pioneering history, social science and investigative journalism, Tea Partiers consume endless quantities of religious pseudo-history and warmed-over conspiracy theories spooned out by baby-food sites like NewsMax and FreeRepublic. If the Tea Party movement has a Bible, it is not Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, but Cleon Skousen’s illustrated work of Mormon dispensationalism, The 5,000 Year Leap; if it has an in-movement journal, it is nothing on the level of the New Left’s Ramparts, or even National Review, the guiding publication of an earlier conservative insurgency; rather, it’s whatever is on AM talk-radio.

But for Brooks, both movements are similarly delusional and quixotic. He writes:

Members of both movements go in big for conspiracy theories. The '60s left developed elaborate theories of how world history was being manipulated by shadowy corporatist/imperialist networks — theories that live on in the works of Noam Chomsky. In its short life, the Tea Party movement has developed a dizzying array of conspiracy theories involving the Fed, the F.B.I., the big banks and corporations and black helicopters.

No one who has spent any time with the Tea Party crowd or read a book by Noam Chomsky in the last 20 years could have written this sentence. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky, he is no conspiracy theorist. One of the most frequent criticisms leveled at Chomsky from the left is that his work is "insufficiently theoretical"—i.e., it does not provide easy, overarching narratives. Chomsky is careful to describe his densely sourced works as "institutional analyses”—analyses that are strikingly devoid of "shadowy networks" or conspiratorial rhetoric. Anyone who doubts the absurdity of Brooks’ comparison is encouraged to read Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins back-to-back with Glenn Beck's Common Sense.

Still, Brooks remains convinced that “the similarities [between 1960s radicals and the Tea Partiers] are more striking than the differences." As does Lind, Brooks argues that "Tea Partiers have adopted the tactics of the New Left. They go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches and extreme statements that are designed to shock polite society out of its stupor."

This comparison, too, depends on having little engagement with either today’s Tea Party protests or 1960s protest culture, particularly its most creative elements in the form of anarchist street theater groups like the Motherfuckers, the Diggers and the Yippies. "[These late '60s-era groups] were genuinely creative, subversive and radical," says J.P. Harpignies, author of Political Ecosystems and a veteran of both the New Left and the counterculture. "They also lived in tenement apartments without money or mainstream political or media allies. This is hardly the case with those populating Tea Party protests marked by racist signage and the support of wealthy demagogues, giant corporate-funded think tanks and a conservative media establishment led by Fox News."

Where the Tea Partiers are ideologically confused to the point of incoherence, the Yippies and Co. were by and large well-read leftists with anti-authoritarian beliefs they could cogently defend. As for their "extreme statements,” the Yippies were trying to shock people. The Tea Partiers, by contrast, don’t understand why eyes widen when they speak of the president’s Kenyan citizenship, the Communist Czars who once ruled Russia or FEMA concentration camps. They just think they’re talking plain Palin-style common sense. 

Today’s New Right is not yesterday’s New Left. Glenn Beck is not Abbie Hoffman circa 1970. If anything, he is Hoffman’s Yippie partner turned Yuppie greed head, Jerry Rubin, circa 1980. Nor are the Tea Partiers "Wal-Mart Hippies" or "Wal-Mart New Leftists." They’re Wal-Mart Birchers. It's on that side of the 1960s their forerunners stood on at the time, and it's on that side they remain.

Alexander Zaitchik is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and AlterNet contributing writer. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be published by Wiley in June.