The Hedonistic Roots of the Tea Party

Winter 2012 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

Efforts to reach a sweeping, 10 year budget deal collapsed recently after Tea Party Republicans forced Party leadership to oppose any compromise that included tax cuts -- even after President Obama had put treasured Democratic entitlements like Social Security on the chopping block.

Anti-tax activists dress up their opposition to tax hikes as a sign of fiscal responsibility. But in a new essay, the sociologist Fred Block argues that the Tea Party is simply the most extreme manifestation of a hedonistic consumer culture.

In "Daniel Bell's Prophecy", Block writes about his legendary former professor who in a 1976 book predicted the tax revolt, one driven by declining social solidarity and the public's increasing unwillingness to pay for productive public goods.

"The rise of a consumer culture from the 1920s to the 1960s," Block notes, "had effectively undermined the historic Protestant sanctification of work and replaced it with a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. Because pleasure is defined in individualistic terms, the pursuit of it results in an erosion of the moral bonds that have historically held society together."

In condemning the Republican opposition to a grand compromise, David Brooks in the New York Times writes, "According to the Gallup Organization, only 20 percent of Americans believe the budget deal should consist of spending cuts only... Yet the G.O.P. is now oriented around this 20 percent. It is willing to alienate 80 percent of voters and commit political suicide because of its faith in the power of tax policy."

While it is comforting to think that the Tea Party is a minority phenomenon that will be overcome once the silent majority speaks out, its roots in the larger culture reflect a much broader contradiction in our political culture, one that lies at the heart of today's fiscal crisis. Americans increasingly demand an ever-growing array of new public services and entitlements even as they have become less willing to pay for them. Forty years ago, Bell called for a new public philosophy capable of restoring America's commitment to collective public action critical to ensuring our national prosperity and greatness. Never has that need been clearer than today.

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