The tea party is the most influential movement in American politics today. But what does it really stand for – and how will it affect American society and politics?
Tea party leaders themselves talk about restoring America to the vision of the founding founders. That’s hardly a revealing insight; almost every political movement claims to carry on the founders’ legacy. We can learn much more about the tea party’s identity by looking to its heroes.
At tea party rallies, posters and praise single out the usual suspects: Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck. But there’s another person who figures prominently at these rallies, one who serves as the intellectual fountainhead ... Ayn Rand. And that should concern all Americans.
Ignoring Rand's real philosophy
Tea partiers portray themselves as ordinary Americans fed up with an out-of-control, deeply indebted welfare state. Many no doubt see Ms. Rand – the 20th-century writer and philosopher who railed against state power and collectivist thinking in such novels as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” – as a posthumous compatriot.
But by clinging to the superficial commonality of hostility to welfare, tea partiers fail to see (or willfully ignore) something critical: Rand espoused an elitist, oligarchic philosophy that is both fundamentally antiAmerican and deeply at odds with the tea party's own “we the people” cause.
At tea party meetings in September, Rand’s name competed in popularity with Jefferson. Some demonstrations even started with a reading from “Atlas Shrugged,” which was coupled with the declaration that this book should be treated as “America’s Second Declaration of Independence.”
But the ironic truth is that, among American authors over the past two centuries, it is impossible to find somebody who has so openly and consistently praised the American elite as Rand has. Rand created magnate protagonists like John Galt and Francisco d’Anconia who ran their industries and societies without paying heed to public opinion. Rand and her heroes hold ordinary people in great contempt. They would surely be appalled to see how the “everyday Americans” at tea party rallies have demanded that they (not the American nobility nor the Ivy League graduates) should have the decisive voice in American politics.
Rand loves the elite
Tea party activists, in their fervor against the elites, more closely echo the motto of the Russian Bolsheviks who insisted that “the cook if taught will efficiently govern society.” So deep is the tea party mistrust of elite, over-educated Americans that the mediocre academic pedigree of some of their favored political figures seems to be a point of pride.
While tea partiers commend Rand as the champion of individualism, they conveniently forget that in her novels, the only people who seemed to benefit from her aim to protect individualism and the unlimited freedom of action were her Nietzschean tycoons. Indeed, Rand was fully indifferent to the workers in her novels, whom she described as primitive beings – “savages” in the words of Atlas’s steel mogul Hank Rearden, arguably one of Rand’s most beloved personages.
It is even more strange that the tea partiers, with their religiosity, chose as their icon the author who did not miss any opportunity to mock Christianity and any other faith.
We have seen this kind of selective championing of an ideologue before. In the 1960s, Vladimir Lenin was considered by many Russian dissidents to be their ally in the fight for the liberalization of Soviet society, simply because they agreed with one single item in his ideological heritage: his relative tolerance of the differing views of his party comrades.
At the same time, these neo-Leninists ignored the fact that their icon was a constant foe of the free election process and of liberal freedoms, in addition to being the founder of the infamous Soviet Gulag.
Sneering at democracy
It is obvious for those who have genuinely read Rand’s novels and essays (as opposed to those who are merely formulating opinions of her from hearsay), that she and the tea party politicians have very nearly opposite views on the desired political system.
Certainly, the tea party movement does praise Ayn Rand-style capitalism, but it also passionately defends the fundamental principles of democracy as they were promulgated in the American Constitution – a fundamental point of departure from Rand.
In Rand’s most popular novels, “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” it is impossible to find any praise of the American Revolution or the American Constitution. In fact it is very easy to find many cases where she sneers at democracy and majority rule, as well as all democratic institutions: the election process, presidency, public opinion, media, and the judicial system.
In her book, “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” she directly mocks democracy in both the past and present periods, and disparages “the will of the people.” It is indeed true that Rand is disgusted with the state, a fact which makes the tea partiers erroneously think that Rand is their ally. But such praise of Rand is remarkable considering that the issue of taxes – at the crux of their movement – was addressed by Rand only in regard to big companies, and never as a concern for ordinary people.
Tea party contradictions
Even if its anti-elitist fervor can be useful for American democracy, at this point in time, the narrative of the tea party is vague, contradictory, and full of utopian and destructive elements. Their convenient heralding of Rand suggests that the only way the tea party will have a future as a constructive part of American politics beyond the November election is if the movement seriously reassesses its intellectual arsenal.
Vladimir Shlapentokh is one of the founders of contemporary Soviet sociology. After emigrating to the United States from the USSR in 1979, he published several dozen books, as well as many articles on various sociological issues in Russian and American societies. His upcoming book (with Joshua Woods) is "Feudal America: The Elements of Middle Ages in Contemporary Society."