Ordinary Ornery
"The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Againt the Liberal Elite" by Lee Harris.

Commentary, June 2010

When angry Americans started staging "Tea Party" protests and standing up at congressional town-hall meetings to vent their fury against encroaching government, the mainstream media and the newly ascendant Democrats mocked and dismissed them. "I think they're AstroTurf," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2009, employing a term of Beltway slang that refers to a public-relations campaign disguised as a grassroots movement. "They're carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on health care." Never mind that a swastika would be the last symbol a savvy PR man would think to deploy.

The essayist Lee Harris was more perceptive. He saw a genuine rebellion of "natural libertarians"--not to be confused with ideological ones--against the efforts of a technocratic "cognitive elite" to expand the rule of experts over ordinary people's lives. And he has written a book called The Next American Civil War to make the case. To Harris's mind, the anger of the natural libertarians and the haughty reaction to it by the cognitive elite made for an explosive mix: "The town hall revolts may turn out to be precisely the kind of event that people look back to and reflect on and say, 'This was the first sign of trouble,' " he writes in his introduction. "This, they might well say, is where we all began to fall apart."

While this seems exaggerated, Harris was undoubtedly right to sense last year that something important was brewing. Although efforts to demonize and marginalize what has come to be known as the Tea Party movement have not let up, no one any longer fails to take it seriously. This spring, news organizations commissioned a raft of opinion polls to find out how many Americans identify with the cause and what exactly they stand for. Even President Obama felt compelled to acknowledge, in a late March interview, that the movement includes "folks who have legitimate concerns."

The Next American Civil War is an intellectual defense of a rebellion against intellectuals. If this seems paradoxical, that is fitting, for Harris devotes much of his book to exploring similar contradictions. He notes that the Tea Party movement is both conservative and populist, that its adherents want "a simple homespun America that is also the dominant military, cultural, and economic power on the planet." Although they recoil from the rule of intellectuals, they want their own children to go to the best schools, and they accept the need for a meritocratic elite: "Not even the most populist-minded conservative will want his hunting buddy to become the new secretary of defense simply because he can shoot a gun." And while they may be nostalgic for a simpler, freer time, by and large they do not want to turn the clock back to the frontier era--or even to 1935 or 1965, as evidenced by surveys showing that whereas Tea Party sympathizers almost unanimously oppose ObamaCare, only a fraction of them would privatize Social Security or Medicare.

The natural libertarian is characterized not by an ideological program but rather by an attitude Harris calls orneriness:

Normally the natural libertarian simply wants to be left alone to pursue his own affairs. He only becomes rebellious when he believes, rightly or wrongly, that there are forces conspiring to rob him of his liberty. It is then, and only then, that he fights back and resists--but only in self-defense.
This is the key to the anomaly of the populist conservative. He is a defender of "the most paradoxical of human institutions--the tradition of independence."

Vindicating that tradition sometimes means defying authority. And not all ornery people are conservatives. As examples, Harris cites Rosa Parks, who refused to comply with the law in Montgomery, Alabama, that required her to surrender her bus seat to a white man, and the drag queens who rioted against New York City policemen after the raid on Greenwich Village's Stonewall bar in 1969.

Like Harris's earlier works, which include The Suicide of Reason (2007) and Civilization and Its Enemies (2004), The Next American Civil War is an intellectual tour de force that ties together diverse historical and philosophical themes. He examines populist rebellions in England and America, both peaceful (the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828) and not (the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, Shays's Rebellion of 1786-87), and argues that even violent and seemingly futile revolts can play an important role in furthering liberty in the long run. Through the failed 1381 rebellion, for example, English serfs "began to see themselves . . . as human beings who were in charge of their own lives," in contrast with their fatalistic forebears. This "created a tradition of rebellion to which 'free-born' Englishmen would continue to resort."

If the book has a shortcoming, it is that to some extent Harris fails to see the trees for the forest. His account of today's conservative populism, while sympathetic, does not ring altogether true in the details. In particular, he unduly emphasizes culture-war themes and issues like religion and same-sex marriage, which are not at the center of the Tea Party movement. This is not entirely his fault; at the time Harris wrote the book, he was describing a nascent phenomenon about which little serious research had been done. Harris's information about it is necessarily anecdotal, based on media reports and his own impressions of his conservative neighbors in suburban Atlanta.

Harris does not go into detail about the liberal elite's efforts to discredit the Tea Partiers. If he had, he might have identified at least one intriguing commonality between the opposing camps. The moral touchstone of today's liberal left is the civil-rights movement, which was itself a rebellion against tradition and in favor of liberty.

When liberal elites portray today's conservative populists as racists, rather than seeing them as pursuers of freedom against excessive government, they are attempting to wrest the mantle of liberty away from the populists. "The group in Washington fighting against the health bill and fighting against the president looked just like and sounded just like those groups that attacked the civil rights movement in the South," said 79-year-old Rep. Charles Rangel the week after ObamaCare's enactment. He was echoed by Rep. Maxine Waters, who complained of "outlandish behavior by the tea-party operation in Washington."

Waters knows a thing or two about outlandish behavior. The last time America experienced a major outburst of political mob violence--the Los Angeles riots of 1992, in which 53 people were killed--she was a House freshman representing the district where most of the bloodshed occurred. She emerged as a spokeswoman for the rioters, excusing and even egging on what she referred to as a "rebellion" and an "insurrection." In interviews at the time, she proclaimed, "It's OK to be angry." According to her her view at the time, "Riot is the voice of the unheard."

It would be interesting to know Harris's take on the L.A. riots in light of his qualified defense of futile revolts. Waters's metamorphosis from dangerous firebrand into hypocritical scold speaks to America's capacity to regain political and ideological equilibrium after a crisis like the L.A. riots. This is made possible by the combination of orneriness and orderliness that Harris brilliantly describes:

The bloodlessly abstract checks and balances provided by our beautifully drawn up Constitution may get all the credit for the fact that the United States has managed for a long time to remain rich, powerful, and free; but the real credit goes to the delicate balance of our civil ecology, in which different personality types, different life styles, different ways of making a living, different religious views come together and clash. We were not meant to all get along. We are far better off keeping our differences and sincerely, vigorously pushing our own agendas based on these differences.
The subtle shadings in this passage contradict the tone and spirit of his overwrought title. By calling his book The Next American Civil War, Harris is suggesting that the Tea Party movement may become violent. Given what we have seen thus far, that notion is another liberal caricature, as baseless as the charges of AstroTurf, extremism, and racism.

On the eve of the Oklahoma City bombing's 15th anniversary in April, Bill Clinton gave a speech in which he lectured Tea Party activists: "Have at it, go fight, go do whatever you want. You don't have to be nice; you can be harsh. But you've got to be very careful not to advocate violence or cross the line." The former president added that unlike the Boston Tea Party, "this fight is about taxation by duly, honestly elected representatives that you don't happen to agree with, that you can vote out at the next election." That result is a much likelier outcome than civil war.

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