Mark Lilla’s “Tea Party Jacobins” and the elision of Watergate

Lots of people have flagged Mark Lilla’s piece in the New York Review of Books, and with good reason. Lilla does an excellent job of looking at the big picture and long term trends, putting together pieces and a coherent narrative of American political history. But I find it astonishing that Lilla omits any mention of Nixon and Watergate in his piece. (Lilla also elides any mention of the assassinations of JFK, RFK, Dr. King, etc.)

Lilla writes that the decline of trust in government “is not a peculiarity of the United States and no one party or scandal is to blame.” But at multiple points in the piece, he dates the trends to the 1970s. It seems that if you’re going to write about all these trends of declining trust in institutions, you might want to write about some of the key betrayals of public trust by those institutions.

Despite the problems with his analysis, Lilla does do a good job of describing why this current “populism”, especially in the Tea Party incarnation, doesn’t fit with the populism we’ve seen in America in the past.

Clipped from

Just as obviously, though, the angry demonstrations and organizing campaigns have nothing to do with the archaic right–left battles that dragged on from the Sixties to the Nineties. The populist insurgency is being choreographed as an upsurge from below against just about anyone thought to be above, Democrats and Republicans alike. It was galvanized by three things: a financial collapse that robbed millions of their homes, jobs, and savings; the Obama administration’s decision to pursue health care reform despite the crisis; and personal animosity toward the President himself (racially tinged in some regions) stoked by the right-wing media.1 But the populist mood has been brewing for decades for reasons unrelated to all this.

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.

The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.