Not long after the tea party sprang into being in the spring of 2009, America's elites started vilifying the movement. In an article worthy of a class-action libel suit, The New York Review of Books depicted the tea party's first march on Washington as a parade of bigots.
Ex-president Jimmy Carter spit venom at tea partiers by saying they resented an African-American president -- a baseless charge of racism willingly echoed by the media.
When they weren't being defamed as racists, tea party supporters were described as irrational, enraged, seething, and livid. Constituents at town hall meetings who rejected the superficial Democratic Party talking points and demanded answers instead of political spin were portrayed as mobs on the verge of riot. At the very time that real Muslim terrorists were planning a record number of attacks inside the U.S. right under their noses, political apparatchiks in the Department of Homeland Security warned ominously of imaginary right-wing violence as the nation's newest terrorist threat.
When the elites weren't depicting their fellow Americans as out-of-control racists and anti-government zealots, they tried to downplay their social and political importance. They did so with a demographic attempt at marginalization; the tea partiers, they said, were too old, too white, too middle class to matter in contemporary America, and thus could be safely ignored.
This liberal critique of the tea partiers -- a dangerous mob, but of marginal importance in post-racial America -- is a curious paradox. Why fear and loathe a movement said to be narrow in its views and scope?
The answer was given to us in a remarkably prescient book, Christopher Lasch's "The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy," posthumously published in 1995. The noted historian, whose intellectual journey carried him from the left in the '60s to the populist right by the '90s, would have been giddy over the tea party.
Lasch believed the only hope for American democracy lay in a revival of the middle class, particularly what were once known as middle-class virtues. The book title is an explicit ironic commentary on Jose Ortega y Gasset's 1932 (first English translation) classic: "The Revolt of the Masses."
Ortega famously argued that a materialistic mass population had no self-restraint, only takes from its civilization -- in contrast to the elites who still sacrificed for the greater good. Lasch's point -- and mine -- is that roles are now reversed. It is the elites who are the materialists and the tea party/middle-class American who is prepared to sacrifice for our grandchildren's freedom and prosperity.
The very idea of virtue, and other absolutes, has fallen into disfavor with the elites.
Lasch described the emergence of elites who "...control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate." These elites would undermine American democracy in order to fulfill their insatiable desire for wealth and power and to perpetuate their social and political advantages. Middle-class values, Lasch warned, would be hollowed out by a value-neutral educational system preaching multiculturalism. Their replacement would be narcissistic values based on self-gratification and worshipful of fame and celebrity as the ultimate values in a world devoid of deeper meaning. Sound familiar, Paris Hilton?
Against this relativistic tide, Lasch found the middle class's antiquated values -- hard work, family, faith, community -- a possible bulwark. He did fear the middle-class squeeze, both in a cultural and economic sense. Had he lived, he would no doubt have been a severe critic of globalism, the 21st century's logical extension of multiculturalism and the economic damage it has done the middle class.
The German philosopher Hegel saw history as a progression of culturally dominant ideas. An original thesis, Hegel says, is followed by its antithesis, and that in turn evolves into a synthesis of both.
Applying Hegel to Lasch, I would argue that the tea party movement constitutes such an historic moment. Make no mistake. What we are witnessing is the antithesis of elite-driven greedy self-serving government debt creation, multiculturalism and soulless globalism.
The tea party movement will assert middle-class values, economic nationalism, patriotism and other concepts derided by post-modern elitists. The movement's central tenets -- small government, decentralization of power and end to profligate spending -- are precisely what Lasch prescribed to restore American democracy.
The elite's fear and loathing of the tea party movement is rooted in the recognition that the real change is only now coming. They are right to be fearful, for the ultimate outcome of the tea party's triumph will be to constrain the elite's economic and cultural hegemony. This reversal of fortune, with power flowing from the elites back to the middle class, will take time to fully manifest itself. But an inexorable movement has begun.
If Lasch were alive, he could write a new book, "The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Rebirth of Democracy." Among its observations might be this: The Obama presidency is both the high watermark, and the beginning of the end, for elite multicultural materialism in America.