Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Progressives Don't Understand the Tea Parties

(Edited on April 24 for clarity and spelling. After reading some of the comments, I realized that my definition of certain terms differs from that of others, so I defined some of them).

In the mainstream media and across the Progressive blogosphere, pundits and ideologues on the left shake their heads at the tea-party goers, accusing us of being used for poltical purposes and of racism, all without the slightest evidence garnered from the actual gatherings; after all, progressives need no evidence. In their own minds they are right, and that rightness, far from being only a matter of fact (which would require evidence), transubstantiates into righteousness, a quality of being on a higher moral plane than the benighted tea-partiers. They have what Thomas Sowell calls The Vision of the Annointed.

On the comments to one of my Tea Party blogs, a comment by Mark sums up the progressive attitude toward the tea parties quite well:

"The simple reason is that the "tea party" movement is not about opposition to government policy. It's about opposition to Barack Obama, plain and simple . . . . it's not a real grassroots movement. It's what political junkies call "astroturfing" - fake grassroots activism. In this case, it was instigated and coordinated by right-wing lobbyists, the Republican Party and Fox News as well as the rest of the conservative media as a means of bashing Obama and rallying support to an otherwise floundering GOP."

This engendered quite a bit of discussion by others, most of whom are surprised at such conclusions made without any good evidence. Although Mark does offer some evidence, it is negative* and backward-looking.** Essentially Mark seems to be saying, "Since you did not protest Bush's spending (though he offers no evidence that we didn't), you cannot be serious about protesting now."

Definition of Terms:

*In science, negative evidence is the absence of some indicator. This term is not perjorative, however negative evidence alone is weak, and is best interpreted in the light of positive evidence of a different sort. Thus in a pregnancy test, a negative result--the titer does not indicate the presence of the hormone HCG--may indicate that the woman is not pregnant, but there may be many other reasons for the result. Definitive presence of HCG, however, is a much more reliable indicator of pregnancy (though not foolproof).

**There is a better term for backwards looking, and for the life of me, I cannot think of it. (Lupus brain!) What I mean here is that Mark is using the lack of a specified previous behavior to interpret current behavior. Again, there may be many reasons why people did not do something in the past, but now are doing it. In the absence of any other evidence for his claims, this is another extremely weak argument. I have my own hypotheses about it, but that's another blog entry.

Sorry, Mark, all "astroturfing" aside, the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. (I really wish the public schools taught the rules of rational discourse better, as well as logic and the emprical principles of science! Drat that NCLB).

Although events are coming fast and furious, and so I have blogged about a great many other things, I have been thinking about this, puzzled that progressives, so ready to take up a cause and organize a protest at the drop of a hat, are unable to see those of us they consider to be their enemies as equally passionate about our ideas.

Today, as I was reading through the posts of the Objectivist Roundup over at Rational Jenn, I came across a speech by Dr. John Lewis that clarified my thinking about this wonderfully. At one point in his talk he said:

"This ruling elite, looking down on us right now, cannot understand gatherings such as these, in which free people gather to defend liberty. They think that this must be orchestrated by a vast conspiracy, because they cannot understand how autonomous human beings might gather by their own choice, to affirm their commitment to liberty.
Our so-called leaders think this because they don’t see autonomous moral beings at all. They see only serfs, sniveling and whining, begging their masters for the scraps needed to survive, acting as a collective mob rather than as thinking individuals."

--Dr. John David Lewis, Charlotte, NC, 15 April 2009

That's the problem. Progressives are collectivists* and cannot imagine individuals coming together autonomously, without being "organized" by some greater entity than themselves, and for purposes that the collective directs. Collectivists simply do not think of individuals as free and autonomous human beings, unencumbered by the group.

*Collectivism is a social or moral outlook that emphasizes the group over the individual, gives priority to group goals, and considers the sum of the whole as greater than the parts. Collectivists use phrases like "the good of the whole" and tend to be concerned with equity. Again, I am not using this term perjoratively here. The Progressive movement since the beginning has been about redistribution of wealth and power, and this is not an individualistic goal, nor is it classically liberal.

The whole speech is worth listening to several times. In it, Dr. Lewis discusses the moral basis of the problems we are facing, and gives a coherent moral justification for political Liberty and for Capitalism, the economic system that sustains it. I have embedded the You Tube video of the speech below. A revised text version can be found at Classical Ideals.

Dr. Lewis has given his kind permission "to read this speech in full wherever defenders of Liberty gather."


Susan said...

Oh, my, Elisheva...guess we've been going at some important issues enough that I don't remember where they're all located.
Great article. Great links that I hope to read more thoroughly this weekend. I'd forgotten the comments discussion on the IR.

Where'd Mark go?

Luke Holzmann said...

Great stuff! Very interesting commentary and explanation of what is going on.

The one thing that struck me, though, is that the Left could easily come back and say the same. From what I've seen on Right blogs, there's an awful lot of "negative and backward-looking" evidence and it could easily be said of Right-winders that, "In their own minds they are right, and that rightness, far from being only a matter of fact, transubstantiates into righteousness, a quality of being on a higher moral plane"... in fact, that's what a lot of Lefters decry.

And, I think it's probably true of everyone: We see the other side as duped into believing that pack of lies, but we--we!--are free-thinking and autonomous.

Again, I love what you have here, but I think it's preaching to the choir and could fairly easily be used by both sides with a few word edits.


Anonymous said...

While I respect your quest to analyze and inform, this statement doesn't square with your usual attention to detail:

"progressives need no evidence"

I doubt that you'd accept this statement with "progressives" replaced by "conservatives" or "libertarians". There isn't a shred of evidence to back it up, sorry.

There *was* evidence that some people who went to the tea parties were either poorly informed about the purpose, or were there instead to promote their own agendas. It may be that their placards were given undue focus by the news media (whose job is to sell "news", after all, and inflammatory news sells), but their presence at all suggests that the movement is not as organized or cohesive as its participants seem to think.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Susan, Mark's comment is on my blog entitled Tea Party: We Stand Here This Day. Thanks.

Luke: Thanks, I think.
I do not agree with your second paragraph--at least from my experience at our tea party and what I have heard from others about theirs. The people who were out at the Tea Parties were generally eloquent about what concerns them: spending, government intrusion into their lives, and loss of liberty. On the other hand, the mainstream media and the blogs and even the comment on my blog, have all been accusations without evidence.

Mark's only "evidence" is that no one took to the streets about TARP. That is negative evidence. By negative, I do not mean rude or nasty, I mean that the argument is based on the absence of something. This makes for an extremely weak hypothesis, because there could be many other reasons that people did not take to the streets about TARP. (I thought of about 20 in a few minutes) Any one of them would effectively refute Mark's argument. Other than that, no evidence is offered, simply a repetition of accusations that comprise the Big Lie strategy. Say it often enough, even without evidence, and it becomes "well known" e.g. "It is well known that . . ."

Deborah: Hmmm. I delineated about whom I was talking after making a general statement. In general, the mainstream media and the progressive blogs. These people have been worse than general about the tea-party goers. But I guess that even though their vile, general and extremely uninformed statements are splashed across the airwaves and newspapers (" . . .(conservatives) limbic systems are too big for their heads and push against the frontal lobes . . .")--they are held to a lower standard?

Sorry, but given this kind of statement (made a Hollyweird Starlet who thinks she is neuroscientist), and after 25 years of belonging to a 'liberal' synagogue, I know the type very, very well.

Susan said...

Sorry, Elisheva. I was SO unclear.

What I was wondering was where Mark went after his review of the Tea Party antics. I would have thought a reasonable person with so much to say about us, would have responded concerning his misunderstandings.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Susan, and join the club! It was apparent that I was unclear or that I tend to think about evidence differently than others, so I had to define my terms.

I think Mark is one of the anonymous commenters from previous posts, who has now got a google account. The style of the comments and word-choice indicate someone who is a "political junky", who has a modern education (as opposed to classical) and my guess is that he is from either the east or west coast. I am betting he is 7-8 years younger than we are, got social studies instead of history and civics, and had language arts instead of English and Rhetoric.

(I hated my high school, and for years I complained to my parents about the fact that they made me go to it. It was stuffy and full of cliques. But now I appreciate the education I got! Thanks, Mom, for being a hardnose about it!)

I also suspect that Mark did not attend a Tea Party. Rather, I think he read what to think about them in the New York Times, the LA Times and the Huffington Post. His argument (or lack thereof) is startlingly similar to what could be found in those three publications.

I am not saying that attending a Tea Party would have changed anyone's mind about the issues, but the feel has been described over and over as extraordinarily happy and fun. They were real parties, and although there are always a few bad apples, they were not anti-Obama.

Connie said...

Elisheva --
Thanks for this post. And especially your comment: the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. I've been trying to explain that truth to my students, without having the classical logic to back me up. I've tried telling them that a negative is very hard to prove. . . Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there. . . Now I'll be able to put it in words succinctly.

As for why progressives accuse us of astroturfing the tea party -- my reasoning was a bit more simplistic -- "projection." It seems whatever we've been accused of is what progressive groups and individuals have done or would do in the same situation.

The difference between "liberals" (which I will call progressives to be more correct) and conservatives/libertarians is clearly described in Vision of the Anointed, and I don't see the argument as flipable. Sure, I understand that there are conservatives that think they are better than others (heh,like "holier than thou," I guess, but that's individual.) The attitude Elisheva is speaking of and Thomas Sowell describes is endemic, a defining characteristic that makes progressives who they are.

Sowell calls it the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite, a vision that's "not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane." The other side, the opposite of the "anointed" are the "benighted." The benighted look at the way things are and try to make hard decisions between realities while the anointed see what they want the world to be and ignore reality in making their policies. This is not switchable.

My point is (and I'm not making it very well) that what is not switchable is the basic assumptions that lead to what either side considers right. For example, progressives see that what is right for the greater good (the collective) trumps what is right for the individual. The rest of us think what is right for the individual trumps what's right for the collective.

So while I know I'm right and my colleagues know THEY are right, I don't think I'm better than my colleagues because in my world view, individuals can think lots of different things, but they think they are better (i.e. more educated, intellectual) than I am because their world view says that the collective needs leaders (them) to educate and lead. Their world view requires such division, and surely they wouldn't think of themselves as the group to be led.

As for what Lefters decry -- I've gotten to the point where I think their values change according to the circumstances. They decry lack of tolerance and then show themselves to be so intolerant.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Connie, Thanks so much! I had posted a link to a blog entry I wrote over a year ago about Sowell's 'vision thing' but I was floundering for how to explain to him succinctly here why there is no equivalency between the Anointed and the Benighted. We are definitely the benighted!

Speaking of the U, and students, I have a paper to write that's been foremost on my mind for a while. So I must STOP procrastinating by blogging and get to work. (Did you hear that whip crack? I did--in my mind where it belongs.
Thanks again! I am feeling really supported.

Mark said...

Sorry, was away from my keyboard for a few days.

Now then, Elisheva asks for "evidence" that the teabagging was not a genuine grassroots initiative, but "astroturfing" - fake grassroots. I give you this:

1. After CNBC's Rick Santelli's call for a Boston Tea Party-like upheaval to protest Obama's housing plan, the lobbyists were not far behind in taking up the cause. FreedomWorks, a lobbying outfit run by former GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, had its staff organize the very first tea party on February 27 in Tampa. Soon after, FreedomWorks began planning nationwide tea party protests and had their operatives help coordinate logistics, call conservative activists, and provide activists with everything from organizing tips to sign ideas. Americans for Prosperity, another lobbying group run by corporate lobbyist Tim Phillips (a former partner to Ralph Reed), assisted with the effort, drawing upon its extensive field staff to plan events, write press releases, and distribute talking points for people on the ground. Newt Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future - which is funded by polluters and helped orchestrated the "Drill Here, Drill Now" campaign last summer - also signed on to support the protests.

2. Both Fox News and Fox Business ran constant promotions explicitly encouraging viewers to attend the tea parties. The Fox broadcasts were in turn used by the tea party organizers to promote their protests. Promising "fair and balanced" coverage, Fox News hosts such as Glenn Beck, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity all broadcast live from the events. The segments for the tea parties were replete with enthusiastic endorsements, like Fox pundit Charles Payne's announcement that it's "time to party like it's 1773!" In their drive to promote the protests, Fox fueled paranoia by making unsubstantiated, conspiratorial claims that the Obama administration may send "spies" to the tea parties.

3. Congressional Republicans fully embraced the tea parties as a channel for opposing Obama. GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner spoke at a tea party in Bakersfield, CA, while Rep. Paul Ryan spoke at an Americans for Prosperity tea party in Madison. Over 35 other Republican lawmakers were invited to speak at other tea party rallies. Republican governors who opposed the economic stimulus package (including Rick Perry of Texas and Mark Sanford of South Carolina) also addressed tea party protests in their own states. (Perry in particular even went so far as to advocate secession from the US, however obliquely.) Even after being rebuked by organizers of the tea parties, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele moved the RNC to officially support the protests. If the GOP's effort to brand and own the protests weren't already apparent, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) introduced legislation formally honoring April 15th as "National Tea Party Day."

Shall I go on?