Every once in a while, I’ll get a review copy of a book as a free blogger
tchotchke that makes me feel like I’m a real media celeb or something. This
time it was a copy of Lee Harris’s new book: The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.
I can’t say I was all that optimistic when I saw the title, or when the
publicist who sent me the copy promised that Harris was “the
conservative American public intellectual of the new millennium.” I figured
this was just going to be one of those books people read when they want to be
reminded that people who think like they do are good and those other folks are
a bunch of cretins.
I was happy to find that the book is much better than its subtitle.
Superficially it’s meant to be a defense of the
TEA Party / town
hall disruption / Glen Beckian paranoid kvetching / Sara Palinish tendency
against the “liberal elites” they complain about. But there’s actually very
little in the book about these things. They’re mentioned in passing, along with
things like Rosa Parks, Wat Tyler’s rebellion, the discovery of Tahiti, the
English Civil War, the Stonewall Riots, the signing of the Magna Carta, the
American Revolution, the rise of Andrew Jackson, and so forth. None of these
are really analyzed in detail. Elements of each of them are brought out as
exemplars to support some facet of Harris’s thesis.
The gist of which thesis is that these quasi-populist, quasi-organized,
right-wing rumblings that have made the news recently are all examples of a
latent, liberty-loving orneriness that comes to the surface periodically in
lucky countries like ours that have the sort of cultural underpinnings that
allow healthy, freedom-promoting governments to evolve.
The tension between democratic, libertarianesque populism on the one hand, and
the guidance of the nation by well-meaning, well-educated elites on the other,
is, according to Harris, itself a blessing. We shouldn’t root for one side or
the other to win (though we may have reason at any particular time to hope one
side or the other gets the upper hand) — the fact that these two sides are
both vibrant and remain locked in conflict is what ensures the health and
utility of republican institutions.
In other words: be glad for the
despite their foibles, inconsistencies, paranoia, and anti-intellectualism,
for it is just such unhinged ornery populists that save us from the inevitable
overreaching of the nanny state technocrats who would crush society in order
to save it. (But cherish the technocrats, too, for they too have their
virtues, and if the populists were given unfettered control everything would
go to hell in short order.)
It’s thought-provoking to be given a whirlwind tour of Western history seen
through the lens of this thesis. That said, the book doesn’t defend the thesis
so much as tell it like a bedtime story: pleasant enough, but not very