Tea Party Animals: How many lumps?

by CarlD

The ‘Tea Party’ is an interesting image for the current wave of disgruntled populism sweeping the U.S.American nonurbs and suburbs. Something is awry with the democracy if our own government is reminding folks of an oppressive colonial power. (That something may be civic education. The basic democratic concept that when you lose elections the other guys get to do things their way for awhile is what we’re trying to explain in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Arizona.) Certainly Democratic administrations are always going to stir up the folk libertarians on ordinary ideological grounds. But it strikes me that there’s an added existential dimension to the level of vituperation currently being directed at the Feds.

The Great Recession has been important social-psychologically in the sense that it created relative immiseration, historically one of the best predictors of social upheaval. People will take consistent, reliable misery pretty well. But when stuff they’ve grown to expect is taken away, watch out. Think Germans after Versailles. (To be more precise, the German case shows that the time to worry is when things start to get better again after the crisis has passed.) In the United States it seems to me the basic problem is accelerated by an individualistic popular culture in which all legitimate collectivities are taken to be voluntary. You’d think the government would be included in voluntary organizations because of the vote. But when votes you lose create organizations in which your will is not directly mixed, the conceptual slide into tyranny is real enough that it worried founding fathers like Madison and caused them to set up a clumsy, inefficient governing structure on purpose as a flywheel.

Also critical, I think, is the perhaps unique success of modern U.S.American civil society in hiding itself from individual view. As Durkheim noted, modernity is characterized by high complexity and interdependence, in which all sorts of stuff we need to live as we do happens around the edges of our awareness. We only worry about sewers and food safety and international monetary systems when they don’t work. When the gears and pulleys under the hood start to grind they make a frightening racket. ‘The Government’ is a convenient popular name for all the stuff we desperately need without even knowing it and over which we suddenly and nauseatingly realize we have no direct personal control when it starts to go wrong. It’s comforting that someone’s in control even as we revile them.

On the Big Scary Other-O-Meter ‘The Government’ probably ranks better than Satan, witches, the international Jewish conspiracy; maybe a little worse than patriarchy, capitalism, and the clash of civilizations. Educated people learn to depersonalize their Big Scary Others.

L'État, c'est moi.

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3 Comments to “Tea Party Animals: How many lumps?”

  1. we’re trying to explain in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Arizona.

    Lovely. But also,

    To be more precise, the German case shows that the time to worry is when things start to get better again after the crisis has passed.

    I recall from training as a telephone crisis line counselor the proposition that suicide is more likely when depression is easing and the suicidal individual has enough energy to do something seriously bad to herself. Raises a question for me about extending psychological generalizations to collective behavior — or, of course, vice-versa.

  2. I’ve heard the same things about anti-depressants – that the elevated suicide rates associated with them may be because they bring the patient up out of the paralyzing crisis so they can actually act on their feelings. But now research is seeming to indicate that anti-depressants don’t work much better than placebos, which actually work pretty well… anyway, our point remains.

    I’d put your second point the other way around. Psychology generalizes to collective behavior as a function of how collective behavior gets built into psychology.

  3. Psychology generalizes to collective behavior as a function of how collective behavior gets built into psychology.

    How do you see this working in the case of suicide? The mechanism seems fairly straightforward the other way around — for whatever reason, chemical or talk therapy, a bit of collective effervesence or finally eating a decent breakfast, the suicidal individual’s energy level rises to the level of action. How does it work in the other direction?

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