Peter Berkowitz: Why Liberals Don't Get the Tea Party Movement





[Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.]

Highly educated people say the darndest things, these days particularly about the tea party movement. Vast numbers of other highly educated people read and hear these dubious pronouncements, smile knowingly, and nod their heads in agreement. University educations and advanced degrees notwithstanding, they lack a basic understanding of the contours of American constitutional government....

Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne criticized the tea party as unrepresentative in two ways. It "constitutes a sliver of opinion on the extreme end of politics receiving attention out of all proportion with its numbers," he asserted last month. This was a step back from his rash prediction five months before that since it "represents a relatively small minority of Americans on the right end of politics," the tea party movement "will not determine the outcome of the 2010 elections."...

Mr. Dionne follows in the footsteps of progressive historian Richard Hofstadter, whose influential 1964 book "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" argued that Barry Goldwater and his supporters displayed a "style of mind" characterized by "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." Similarly, the "suspicion of government" that the tea party movement shares with the Anti-Federalists, Mr. Dionne maintained, "is not amenable to 'facts'" because "opposing government is a matter of principle."...

Neither professors of political science nor of history have made a priority of instructing students in the founding principles of American constitutional government. Nor have they taught about the contest between the progressive vision and the conservative vision that has characterized American politics since Woodrow Wilson (then a political scientist at Princeton) helped launch the progressive movement in the late 19th century by arguing that the Constitution had become obsolete and hindered democratic reform.

Then there are the proliferating classes in practical ethics and moral reasoning. These expose students to hypothetical conundrums involving individuals in surreal circumstances suddenly facing life and death decisions, or present contentious public policy questions and explore the range of respectable progressive opinions for resolving them. Such exercises may sharpen students' ability to argue. They do little to teach about self-government....



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