A woman crashes her car into the White House barricades and then careers off toward the Capitol, where she is shot and killed--in an unnecessary fusillade--by Capitol police, who are working without pay because of the government shutdown. The next day, a man incinerates himself on the Mall. Is it just me, or is there a whiff of the apocalypse in the air? It isn't hard to locate the immediate cause of the shutdown and impending debt-ceiling debacle: the radical nihilist minority of the Republican Party and the GOP's craven leadership. Words should not be minced here. These radicals--it is wildly inaccurate to call them conservatives--are a pestilence feeding on ignorance and cynicism, preying on fear as a period of unprecedented prosperity wanes. They are not the apocalypse but represent the desperate last gasp of the white majority and of an era. My generation's era.
My work in journalism began almost exactly 44 years ago at a suburban newspaper just north of Boston; very quickly, I found my true niche in Boston's vibrant underground press. The memories of that time have overwhelmed me during the current crisis, helped along by a rising tide of articles comparing today's Tea Party to the left-wing radicals of my youth. There is some facile merit to this, but also important substantive differences. The old New Left featured a moral absolutism that didn't wear very well over time, but was based in a dream of justice. We opposed a criminally foolish war; we marched for racial equality. But by the time I started work, righteousness was beginning to curdle into self-righteousness and then devolve into nihilism. The weekly newspaper I worked for ran a photo of Richard Nixon--oh, for a Republican like Nixon now!--with a shark's mouth. Nixon drove liberals nuts, turned moderates into extremists, much the same way Barack Obama affects conservatives today. But there is no equivalency here: Nixon was a moderate politician, except for the carnage he sponsored in Vietnam, but a palpable crook. Obama is also a moderate politician--the individual mandate and health care exchanges that are at the heart of Obamacare were Republican ideas--but he has been pilloried and calumniated by extremists like Senator Ted Cruz's father, who recently said the President was "likely to side with the Muslims" and called Obamacare "suicide counseling." No doubt many of the more lunatic anti-Obama excretions have a basis in racism.
The real similarity between the Tea Party and the New Left is a matter of style: a politics of confrontation rather than of compromise. Indeed, our generational tendency toward public melodrama provided the script for the inevitable backlash. The pro-life movement came first, after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973: suddenly it was opponents of abortion who were filling the Mall with placards and protests. Eventually, the Tea Party's don't tread on me flag--a brilliant piece of choreography--joined the peace symbol as an icon. The left was never able to elect a President as ideological as Ronald Reagan--though he, too, was a moderate compared with today's bullyraggers--or to hijack the government, as the Tea Party has, but it was every bit as solipsistic. It was all about street theater, bombast, showtime. "Bread and circuses is not the policy of a republic," William Galston wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, "but rather of an empire entering moral senescence."