How the Elites Became Tea Party Enemy #1
Angelo Codevilla’s American Spectator essay, “The Ruling Class,” has now been released in book form, with an introduction by Rush Limbaugh. The essay has been only slightly expanded. It has been padded to 147 pages by appending the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to fill 50 of them, and adding a suggested reading list to fill 6 more.
On the other hand, if you missed the essay the first time, the new paperback offers a convenient way to read it. And it should be read. Rush Limbaugh is right to call “The Ruling Class” one of the most important books of the year.
Which is not to say that “The Ruling Class” is a good book. It’s not. It reads like the grumblings of a grumpy old man, if grumpy old men smoked a lot of marijuana: grand unsupported generalizations, paranoid fantasies, utter forgetfulness that one said exactly the opposite thing just a few months ago.
Good book or bad book, however, “The Ruling Class” takes us as deep as we are ever likely to get into the minds of Tea Party Americans. It is important not for what it argues, but for what it reveals.
Here’s what it does reveal:
1) The central concept of the Tea Party is the division of the nation into two parts: the legitimate and the illegitimate, “real America” vs unreal. This is the idea behind Sarah Palin’s speeches. Arthur Brooks adds a social science apparatus to the concept in his new book, The Battle. But it’s Codevilla who advances the concept in its boldest form.
The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from each other than did the nineteenth century’s Northerners and Southerners…. Our classes’ clash is over whose country America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. (p. 7)
2) The dividing line between “classes” is not wealth. You can be a multi-millionaire and yet still be excluded from “the ruling class.” The dividing line is formal education, and the values and attitudes typically absorbed by highly educated people. You might almost say that the class struggle as defined by Codevilla is waged between people with more money than education, and people with more education than money.
Today’s Ruling Class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters – using the ‘in’ language – serves as a badge of identity.
3) Despite the Tea Party’s slogans about limited government, the divisive issues are not truly economic. Indeed, despite the worst economic crisis since World War II, Codevilla has little to say about economics, and what he does say is shallow and perfunctory. His main economic idea is to cut the federal budget (pp. 81-83), and there he seems to imagine that eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will achieve a great part of the job.
The issues that most intensely exercise Codevilla: same-sex marriage, home schooling, abortion, and religion in public life. Cranky old man complaints – bad renditions of the national anthem at football games; cars too complicated to fix by yourself without a mechanic – get equal space with the Obama health plan and financial reforms.
Many pundits have remarked that the Tea Party pays relatively little attention to social issues. This statement draws the line too neatly. What Codevilla shows us is that the divide is not a divide about issues, but a divide about identity. As much as he dislikes abortion and taxation, what most fundamentally offends him is “the Ruling Class’ fundamental claims to its superior intellect and morality.” (p. 78)
4) A fascinating subtheme of The Ruling Class is how much of the author’s rage is directed at the Bush administration – but how difficult it is for Codevilla to say so out loud. In its style and attitude, the Bush administration belongs to good America. But as to its substance, Codevilla has this to say:
Because our Ruling Class deems unsophisticated the American people’s perennial preference for decisive military action or none, its default solution to international threats has been to commit blood and treasure to long-term, twilight efforts to reform the world’s Vietnams, Somalias, Iraqs and Afghanistans, believing that changing hearts and minds is the prerequisite of peace, and that it knows how to change them. The apparently endless series of wars in which our Ruling Class has embroiled America, wars that have achieved nothing worthwhile at great cost in blood and treasure has contributed to defining it, and to discrediting it – but not in its own eyes. (p. 23)
The Ron Paul movement is migrating from the periphery of the right-wing world to the defining center of the Tea Party – and while George W. Bush still cannot be criticized by name, he can be repudiated by implication.