Saturday, March 6, 2010

The New Right

I have not said much about the Tea Party protesters, who are perhaps the most visible group engaging in regular public contention and public speech.  They were first visible at those infamous health care town halls.  Tea Party protests have continued, sometimes drawing very respectable numbers.  The demonstrations have been peaceful, and mostly unhindered by security forces.  The protesters themselves have the same sort of viewpoint diversity and, frankly, wackiness that other large public movements often exhibit.

David Brooks recently compared the Tea Party Protesters to the New Left.  In this op-ed, he calls them "Wal-Mart Hippies."  Brooks notes that the Tea Partiers are different in many ways from the New Left participants and leaders.  But he writes:
[T]he similarities are more striking than the differences. To start with, the Tea Partiers have adopted the tactics of the New Left. They go in for street theater, mass rallies, marches and extreme statements that are designed to shock polite society out of its stupor. This mimicry is no accident. Dick Armey, one of the spokesmen for the Tea Party movement, recently praised the methods of Saul Alinsky, the leading tactician of the New Left.
That the New Right is borrowing repertoires from previous protest groups is no surprise.  Repertoires like rallies and protests, as social scientists have observed, are modular.  You can see this clearly on college campuses today, where many students with conservative causes engage in the same sort of public contention Vietnam protesters and civil rights activists did before them.

The reliance on these seemingly dated repertoires may seem surprising.  One might attribute it to the age of the Tea Party members, who seem not to be drawn from younger generations.  But that would fail to explain why protests, rallies, and sit-ins continue at college campuses today. 

Like all other movements, the Tea Party needs public exposure.  It needs physical and tangible exposure of the sort that attracts media attention.  They would ecertainly exist on the Web, and surely use it for effective organizations.  But Tea Partiers would not exist in the public eye if they relied solely on Facebook or Twitter.  The traditional public square is where movements begin, even in the digital age.  Public protests provide more than media exposure and the chance to reach target audiences (public officials, fellow citizens, fellow movement members).  The  protests are cathartic moments; they are acts of solidarity.  They glue the organization together. 

So the Tea Party is a fascinating case study of what may be a 21st Century social movement -- one relying, as Brooks says, on mid-20th Century tactics.    


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