Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Tea Party as a Steampunk Movement

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth thinkers like Frederick Jackson Turner and Thorstein Veblen expected that Americans would come to terms with the consequences of industrialization and the end of the frontier – a world of Big Business and Big Science, mass society, and finite natural resources, which necessarily brings with it Big Government, Big Labor and a more refined ecological sensibility as necessary features of everyday life. At midcentury, however, C. Wright Mills in books like White Collar and The Power Elite, William H. Whyte in The Organization Man and William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy all wrote of the failure of American culture to come to grips with these realities. Instead the predominant ideal remained a romanticized world of small business and small government, and unbounded economic expansion sustained by profligate resource use – an ideal which is not merely an object of nostalgia, but political rhetoric that is not merely dressing, but a key source of legitimation of rightist political initiatives. Some, like Richard Hofstadter, the historian of the post-New Deal "liberal consensus," or John Kenneth Galbraith in books like The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, believed they saw the country adapting to the new realities, but the repeated and cumulative triumphs of the political right in the last half century has also been the triumph of those who idealize that lost nineteenth century world, and claim to be working to bring it back – the position still around today in the form of the Tea Party's platform.

And so here we have it: an economic model belonging to a world before railroads as a major political force in the twenty-first century, as retro-futuristic as the vision of a telegraph in every home, a steam-powered cars in every garage, and a little Babbage engine in every pocket. The fact that this persists as such a strong element in American life is, of course, worrisome. After all, the coming decades seem certain to pose profound challenges – in particular, challenges relating to technological change, demographic transformation and ecological constraints. The endurance of pieties already outmoded in the day of Queen Victoria, year after year, decade after decade, is a reminder that we never quite met the milder forms those challenges took in the twentieth – and considerable reason to fear that we will cope even less successfully with the problems so clearly coming into view now.

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