As a connoisseur of conservative politics, I was fascinated by an event that occurred last week when a group of movement graybeards got together to sign what was described as a new manifesto for the political right. The document itself wasn't that interesting -- it contained not a word about any policy and was notable mostly for its numbing repetition of the phrase "limited government." What made the event interesting were the theatrics.
The group was dominated by Reagan-era notables and people who in the 1980s were called the "New Right." They have since managed to hang around in comfortable Washington sinecures. The first name on the manifesto was Reagan attorney general Ed Meese; other signatories included Grover Norquist, Brent Bozell, Richard Viguerie, Alfred Regnery, Ed Feulner, David Keene, and Kenneth Blackwell. If you're up on your movement big shots, you know that this is the heart of the conservative establishment.
Yet the event didn't take place in a tastefully appointed conference room at Feulner's Heritage Foundation or Keene's American Conservative Union. It took place at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, and the document was grandly named "The Mount Vernon Statement." As the assembled group filed up to sign the document, they were watched over by a Washington impersonator. On the associated Web site, the text is displayed on yellowed parchment, with the signatories' names in flowing script.
What Meese and his aging colleagues no doubt realized was that if you want to be relevant in the quickly changing conservative movement of 2010, you'd better pretend it's 1776. Donning revolutionary regalia -- sartorially or rhetorically -- is becoming to today's right what slipping on a tie-dye was to Grateful Dead shows back in the day. It tells other participants that you're all part of the same tribe. It may seem silly to pretend to be a radical agent of change fighting against "tyranny" -- the word you hear over and over again from conservatives these days -- from a corner office in a corporate-funded D.C. think tank, but they'll do their best.
With the unruly tea-party movement suddenly the hottest show in American politics, everyone on the right wants to get in on the act. And they'd better start boning up on their colonial-era history. George W. Bush flunked a reporter's quiz on foreign leaders when running for president in 2000; today's GOP contenders ought to be prepared for a Founding Fathers test.
That's what Sarah Palin found out when she sat down for an interview with Glenn Beck last month. Palin was probably expecting a softball interview, which she got, until Beck asked her who her favorite Founding Father was. Palin gave a typically Palinesque response -- "You know, well, all of them," and Beck shot back, "Bullcrap. Who's your favorite?" After a moment she came up with George Washington, but in fairness, she probably didn't know she was supposed to have a favorite.
Those are the right's new rules. The tea-party movement may or may not be gaining adherents out in the land, but it is a parade that every Washington Republican wants to co-opt. The Republican Party chair declares, "I'm a tea partier," establishment conservatives like Ed Meese rush to sign documents with quill pens, and a thousand conservative activists spend their weekends making "Don't Tread On Me" signs.
Of course, it's little more than opportunism for some. But even these bandwagon jumpers no doubt feel the surge of excitement. What they're embracing isn't, as they might have it, just a patriotic tradition and a set of ideas about liberty and government. More than anything else, it's a narrative. It's a story of principle and world-changing action. It's about the absolute heroism of the soul who stands up to tyranny at great personal risk. That's the story they want told, and they want to be its protagonists.
The only problem is that there is no tyranny to rebel against. President Barack Obama isn't rounding up his opponents. He isn't punishing them for their free speech. He hasn't even raised anyone's taxes, save for a boost in the federal cigarette tax (we await the event where the tea partiers dump cartons of Marlboros into the Chesapeake). So what are the outrageous crimes that have driven the right to shout "Enough!" until their faces turn red? In the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Obama passed a large stimulus bill. And he might pass health-care reform that could extend coverage to those who don't have it, all while preserving the private insurance system. He's also embraced a market-based initiative for reducing greenhouse emissions. Not exactly a program that would that would offend the delegates of the Continental Congress. What has driven conservatives to distraction isn't tyranny -- it's the oldest political complaint in the book: The other guys won and are attempting to implement their agenda.
Yet when conservatives criticize the administration, today's playacting revolutionaries imagine themselves heroes of liberty, bravely staring down the forces of oppression. This notion must be called what it is: a puerile fantasy. The tea-party sign-waver is not the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. The conservative blogger is not Jacobo Timerman, exposing the barbarity of the Argentine junta only to experience it himself. The activists and operatives and think-tank denizens are not Vaclav Havel, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, or Nelson Mandela.
And they sure aren't Washington, James Madison, or Thomas Jefferson. Precisely because they live in the country those American visionaries made, the Founding Father fetishists risk nothing by objecting to the current administration, no matter the apocalyptic language they use to clothe those objections in glory. They are participants in public debate in the world's oldest democracy -- nothing more, nothing less. It's a fine thing to be, but it doesn't make you a hero. And putting on a tricornered hat won't make it so.