The Tea Party Jacobins

Mark Lilla in the New York Review of Books:

Robespierre A new strain of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless, and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that. This is the one threat that will bring Americans into the streets.

Welcome to the politics of the libertarian mob.

If we want to understand what today’s populism is about, we first need to understand what it isn’t about. It certainly is not about reversing the cultural revolution of the Sixties. Despite the rightward drift of the Republican Party over the past decade, the budding liberal consensus on social issues I noted in the Nineties has steadily grown—with the one, complicated exception of abortion.2

Consider the following:

• Since 2001 the proportion of those favoring more religious influence in society has dropped by a fifth, while those wanting less influence rose by half.3

• Today a majority of Americans find single parenthood morally acceptable, and nearly three quarters now tolerate divorce.4 Roughly a third of adults who have ever been married have also been divorced at least once, and that includes born-again Christians, whose rate is roughly the national average.5

• Though opposition to gay marriage has declined over the past quarter-century, a majority still opposes it. Yet more than half of all Americans find homosexuality morally acceptable, and a large majority favors equal employment opportunities for gays and lesbians, health and other benefits for their domestic partners, and letting them serve in the military. A smaller majority now approves of letting them legally adopt children as well.6

Though there’s been a slight conservative retrenchment since the 2008 election, it’s clear that the Sixties principle of private autonomy is rooted in the American mind.

More here. [Image shows Maximilien Robespierre.]