Combating Tea Party Populism with Conservative ‘Inactivism’ Is a Fantasy

Inactivism is actually a time-honored libertarian fantasy.


First Things blogger Joe Carter is on the right track with his innate suspicion of Tea Party populism. Its “excess of enthusiasm,” he writes, chafes against his “natural revulsion to political rallies, protest speeches, and vague agendas.”

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Carter counterproposes, with tongue firmly in cheek, a “Wet Blanket” movement:

I want to thrown in my lot with others who want to throw a wet blanket over politics and whose desire is to dampen the enthusiasm for all forms of political activity. I want to consort with citizens who are willing to arrest the ardor, dash the devotion, sap the spirit, and zap the zeal from anything that remotely resembles political enthusiasm. I want to create a new party, dedicated to the mastery of the art of anti-propaganda and committed to the conscientious devotion of alert inactivity.

I hate to burst his bubble, but this is actually a time-honored libertarian fantasy, begun semi-officially by P.J. O'Rourke in a speech to the Cato Institute in 1993 at the opening of its then-new headquarters:

So we are here tonight in a kind of antimatter protest—an unpolitical undemonstration by deeply uncommitted inactivists. We are part of a huge invisible picket line that circles the White House twenty-four hours a day. We are participants in an enormous nonmarch on Washington—millions and millions of Americans not descending upon the nation’s capital in order to demand nothing from the United States government. To demand nothing, that is, except the one thing which no government in history has been able to do—leave us alone.

My friend Jonah Goldberg, years ago, tried to spark a similar uncampaign (again with tongue in cheek), having similarly missed O’Rourke’s ur-text.

The recurrence of this joke is symptomatic, it seems to me, of a problematic ideological indulgence: the idea that the bell can be unrung, the ratchet reversed, the history unwritten.

Let’s not even get into the sophomoric Manichaeanism of Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto or the revival of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. (I happen to think that many of the conflicts of modern American politics are as much between competing liberties as they are between government and civil society.) On its own terms, the “inactivism” fantasy doesn’t hold water: Very much to the chagrin of the old liberal guard, the success of the conservative movement over the last 30 years—direct mail, alternative media, a legal counterestablishment, the energizing of Christians, and all of that—required a lot of work, not to mention foundation and corporate money.

Where and to whom did O’Rourke imagine he was speaking back in 1993, after all? A bridge club? A sock hop?

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