Rand preferred coffee, not tea

By Ben Rowe

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” Those are the words of Ayn Rand, the controversial novelist-philosopher whose work Atlas Shrugged has been adopted by the burgeoning Tea Party movement as a kind of libertarian-capitalist bible. But the Tea Party is perhaps one of the most contradictory new political movements to emerge in the years since Obama’s election as president, particular in its adherence and support with Rand’s objectivist ideals.

The Tea Party is a radicalist sect within the mainstream Republican Party, beginning its life as a series of protests against the ObamaCare universal health plan and economic policy. Seeing a connection between the collapsing economy and growing government control of the Obama administration and the socialist dystopia depicted in Rand’s novel, the movement began appropriating ideas and influences from the book, partly in order to give the infant movement a common recognized literary framework from which to operate. Initially throwing its weight behind “maverick” politicians like Sarah Palin, it has become clear that any Republican candidate for the presidency will need the support of this growing movement.

To this end, there has been plenty of cross-pollination between the talking points of the Tea Partiers and standard Republicans, leading to a series of gross contradictions between the various principles of the movement which its leaders and spokespeople seem unable or unwilling to recognize. But until these contradictions are dealt with, until the movement decides which of these opposing principles it stands for, it will neither be a major political movement nor the unifying answer to America’s problems that it wishes to be.

Tea Party suitor Michelle Bachmann brands her campaign as a return to Christian values, and indeed playing to a Christian base has long been a part of Republican political strategy. The Tea Party itself, as the most extreme expression of that base, considers fundamental Christian morality to be essential to the American way of life. Christian morality? And objectivism? Don’t make me laugh. Rand considered religion, hand in hand with communism, to be the cause of all of humankind’s ills throughout the ages. Atlas Shrugged contains, for one thing, a 70-page speech that denounces the traditional Christian morality of altruism and instead declares that humankind’s only salvation lies with greed and pride, two of the seven deadly sins of the Christian canon. Most notably, Atlas Shrugged is a firm rejection of the concepts of altruism and self-sacrifice, two of the most crucial foundations of Christian morality. You can’t build a philosophy that holds The Bible in one hand and Atlas Shrugged in the other any more than you can build a wall using petroleum for mortar.

The current buzz issue for the Party is Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the rich, who have enjoyed relatively low rates over the past decade. The argument from the right is that the rich control capital and need to be able to reinvest it into their businesses, creating jobs and stimulating the economy. The argument from the left is that raising taxes on the rich could solve the debt crisis, and that it’s immoral to let the rich off when the middle class are becoming the lower class faster than anyone can count. To counter these criticisms and offer a defense of the Tea Party position, Republican representative and owner of 33 Subway franchises John Fleming appeared on MSNBC’s The Place for Politics. In the interview, Fleming stated that after taxes, payroll and investing back into his businesses, he only had $200,000 to “feed my family.” Fleming’s argument was that raising taxes on the rich would be taking food out of their mouths. Considering the average American family’s income is around $40,000, Fleming’s defense is laughable — he is using the arguments of the left to back up positions of the right. This kind of desire to play to lower class sympathies in order to back up upper class favouring economic policies is the kind of contradictory inanity that characterizes the Tea Party. The idea that everyone deserves enough to provide for themselves is a classic leftist ideal, but it is absurd to argue for the protection of wealth based on that ideal. If Fleming only earned enough to provide for his family, he wouldn’t own those Subway franchises, wouldn’t employ those people, who then wouldn’t earn enough for their families. This position, that society rests not on the shoulders of the lower class, but of the businesspeople and entrepreneurs, is the central idea of the Tea Party’s vaulted Atlas Shrugged, yet when the time comes to use it, the party shirks away and instead attempts to defend itself based on virtues the majority will agree with, but which cannot logically support its positions.

This brings us to the central contradiction in the Tea Party value system, which is the movement’s position on the elite of American society. For the movement is a populist one, spurred from the grassroots, an angry and impassioned reaction to what a group of Americans see as a betrayal of the principles of their country. In this sense, the movement could be characterized as an expression of the “commoner.” This is consistent with recent Republican rhetoric, with politicians such as Sarah Palin adopting “folksy,” “down-home” attitudes, and Rick Perry running his entire campaign on the idea of being a guy you want to have a beer with. It is common to hear right wing pundits denouncing the east coast elitist establishment, the ivory tower mentality, to hear them decry people who “think too much” and ask “gotcha” questions. This is the attitude of anti-elitism that the Tea Party has inherited from the right, and as a populist movement it is an attitude the Tea Party maintains. But it is an attitude that is completely anathema to the movement’s beloved Atlas Shrugged, which is possibly one of the most elitist novels ever written. Atlas Shrugged’s plot hinges on the idea that without the captains of industry, without the men in the ivory towers, society would collapse. The novel is as complete a rejection as possible of the romanticization of “the commoner” you can find — a rejection of the average, the mediocre, the poor, or the weak.

So it’s baffling to find it adopted as the gospel of blue collar American protestors, especially considering that the novel has been summarily rejected and ridiculed by traditional intellectuals ever since it was released over 50 years ago. Of course, it is likely that while the basic sketch of the premise of Atlas Shrugged, an America on the brink of economic collapse due to oppressive socialist government policies, is appealing to Tea Party members, the book’s 1,000-plus page length is not. It is probable that if Tea Partiers began to actually read Rand’s tome they would find much of their basic moral beliefs threatened. For while Rand’s dystopian setting may resemble modern day America for the members of the movement, her solutions to the problem do not resemble the Tea Party’s except in the broadest of strokes.

But, for better or worse, by associating themselves with Rand, the Tea Party have gained the same infamy and scrutiny that with which any people professing agreement with Rand soon find themselves beset with. What remains to be seen is if the Party will evolve to more fully embrace Rand’s ideas, or drop them as the movement merges more fully with the mainstream Republican Party, a Party whose morality is just as far from Rand as the Democrats are. Elections are decided by majorities, and while Atlas Shrugged often claims to be second only to The Bible in influence, in practice it is most likely that the majority will claim allegiance to Christ, not Rand.

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