The Politics of Being Alone

Life as a solitary struggle.

This issue of Jacobin is scheduled to go to bed shortly before the midterm election, so the present article will drift to sleep blissfully unaware of its outcome. But 2010 already seems certain to enter the annals alongside dates like 1938, 1946, 1978, 1994: all were years of midterm elections that brought miraculous regeneration for the hardy species known as the American Right.

We would do well to remember that history did not begin the day Rick Santelli heckled “the losers” on CNBC. On an August afternoon in 1938, twenty thousand Midwestern Republicans gathered in an Indiana cornfield in what the New York Times called a “carnival atmosphere” to eat fried chicken and corn on the cob amid fluttering red, white and blue bunting, and to listen to the worthies of the Party of Lincoln declaim for an “end to the New Deal trend toward dictatorship and return to the ‘American way’ of government,” for a “mighty fight to save the United States as we have known it for 150 years.” The “Cornfield Conference” of 1938 was the organizing brainchild of a millionaire Republican jukebox entrepreneur named Homer E. Capehart — an accomplished ranter on the topics of socialism and the welfare state, a portly, pink-cheeked man in suspenders, soon to be a senator. It was held in the trough of the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937–38 and three months later the Republicans, basking in such rhetoric, picked up eighty-one seats in the House and six in the Senate.

Does that sound familiar? This year, the New York Times tells us, eight candidates from the Tea Party have a “good or better” shot of winning Senate seats, among the thirty-seven seats at stake. This is a tsunami. If the whole Senate were up for election, at this rate we could look forward to twenty-two Tea Partiers in the upper chamber next year. What does it tell us about the state of American political life? The colorful outer fringes of the movement have spawned candidates of the Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle stripe: outlandish characters, catnip for MSNBC liberals, who give off that special aura of otherworldliness peculiar to American extremist politics. (On the Left, witness the 9/11 truthers, chemtrails watchers and assorted monetary cranks). Angle has voted against water fluoridation. She advocates “Second Amendment remedies” to government tyranny and warns of Dearborn, Michigan falling under the grip of Sharia law. Strangely, she also seems close to the Scientologists. Liberals hear such talk and, predictably, cry fascism, but they couldn’t be further from the mark. Listen to the ranting of the Angles and you won’t hear the slightest echo of torch-lit parades or of uniformed thugs with identical salutes. On the contrary, the rhetoric tells of long, lonely evenings of solitary study, the musty smell of the dog-eared tract, the flickering glow of the monitor, the hothouse brain. This politics feeds on isolation; it’s allergic to militant collective struggle. No one ranting about black helicopters and Project MKULTRA will ever organize a March on Rome.

Beyond this outer fringe, though, lies the sturdier, relatively saner core of the Tea Party (really, just another name for the timeless conservative base), the part of the movement with which liberals have a harder time coming to grips. Here we find ourselves squarely in the venerable tradition of Homer Capehart and his Cornfield Conference. “The hope and change the Democrats had in mind was nothing more than a retread of the failed and discredited socialist policies that have been the enemy of freedom for centuries all over the world,” says Senator Jim DeMint. This, not black-helicopter anxieties, is the real lingua franca of Tea Party-ism. In April, the New York Times polled self-described supporters of the movement and compared their answers to the general population. Two questions yielded by far the biggest differences between the two groups: whether the respondent preferred a bigger government providing more services or a smaller government providing fewer services (38 points); and opinions about government benefits for the poor (35 points). Nothing else came close: not abortion (9 points); gay marriage (10 points); gun control (14 points); or whether Obama favors blacks over whites (14 points).

The creed is ancient; it’s passed from father to son. But to get at its essence you have to look behind the facade preoccupation with “government.” Read the answers given by young conservative activists to a 1960 survey asking them to describe the influence of their parents’ politics. They all have the same ring:

“Brought me up to believe in the individual and to see him as the center of society, not the state.”

“Because I was raised on the premise that each man has the responsibility of independence and to provide for himself and his dependents.”

“They have trained me to be responsible for my actions, self-reliant, desirous of education, believing in an absolute God…”

“I was raised a Taft Republican — and raised in the older morality of self-sufficiency, honor, etc.”

“Primarily in the day-to-day values which they have taught me — self-reliance, Victorian morality, rigid honesty, and honor, etc.”

Self-reliant” . . . “provide for himself” . . . “independence” . . . “self-sufficiency.” At the center of the Tea Party lies this stolid Taft Republicanism. It’s leagues away from the passions of the noisiest fringe types, the birthers and deathers and tenthers who fret about masturbation and the gold standard. It’s a politics about the man who stands alone, about life as a solitary struggle, about society as a silent stream of elementary particles.

Is it any wonder this philosophy is ascendant in the US today? We’re living in the twilight of a grand societal project whose aim has been to strip the individual down to an isolate — a competitor confronting his fellow competitors in a never-ending struggle for survival. Each of us is now fashioned into a petty proprietor of our personal skills, a bundle of assets we must market and invest in and keep competitive, and the labor we can furnish, for most of us, is all we can count on. The genius of this project lies in its cumulative effect: the more individuals must compete, the more their ties of solidarity are sanded down; the more solidarity frays, the more minds narrow to the Hobbesian horizon of possessive individualism. In the end, the program succeeds by generating its own support.

Even in those areas where the wrecking project has ostensibly failed to penetrate, the ethic can still be seen. Consider the elderly Tea Partier who declares that he wants “the government out of my Medicare.” How is that possible? Medicare is a universal program of social insurance, the single most popular function of the US government. Yet while its historic champions, the Democrats, have always defended the program rhetorically, never in recent memory have they done so on the grounds that it embodies a social choice, a bond of solidarity. Their argument, rather, has been that Medicare is a good that belongs to “you” (not to “us”), a good that red-handed Republican are always trying to snatch away. Thus, even as they preserve this remnant of the welfare state in law, the Democrats have already privatized it in our minds.

What happens if we change the scene to France, where the national mobilization against Sarkozy’s pension reform is ongoing as I write? A reporter for Le Monde recently asked some of the demonstrators in Paris why they had come out to protest. As a counterpoint to the conservative activists of 1960, here were some of their answers:

Livia, 62, retired cosmetics factory worker: “I’m lucky to be in good health, but it’s not the case with everybody. I had [my pension] thanks to others who fought for me, so I’m fighting for others. I’ve always fought to defend ideas, values. I go to all the mobilization days.”

Danielle, 60, who works in professional training: “I’m not here for me. My pension is already taken care of. It’s for future generations. I always have a hope, maybe it’s utopian, but I think that things can still change. I’ve been a union member in the CGT since May ’68, even though I’m from a right-wing family. In the business world, I learned very fast that if there aren’t people in solidarity, together, facing management, there’s no balance, you’re always getting nibbled away at.”

Marie-Laure, 56, elementary school teacher: “Beyond the issue of pensions, there’s a real problem of society. The middle class, which we’re part of, is being pulled down. The class below doesn’t have enough to live. We live longer, it’s true, but not necessarily in good health. I hope they listen to us, because what’s going on is indecent.”

Bernard, 45, an IT manager in an aeronautics firm: “I’ve gone a few times to Anglo-Saxon countries, I’ve seen granddads of 70 selling shoes. I don’t think that’s a good model of society.”

Model of society” . . . “solidarity” . . . “I’m not here for me” . . . “problem of society.” Today, this language is absent not only from the Tea Party right, but, unfortunately, also from the main currents of the American left. And yet, this language, by its very existence, stands as proof that despite the inexorable global forces allegedly responsible for the acid bath in which society is currently being dissolved, it remains possible to “think society.”

One day, at a highway roadblock organized by truck drivers in northern France, a Belgian long-haul driver, furious to find himself stuck, got out of his vehicle to confront the French unionists. “Your pension reform, it’s like that everywhere — in Belgium, too. What are we going to do, shut down the country, like you?”

“Well, yeah” came the answer.