America’s two conversations

    What is the Tea Party all about?
    In this week’s “Centre Square” essay, Chris Satullo suggests that it is a symptom of the breakdown in communication between the nation’s two on-going conversations, the elite and the colloquial.

    [audio: satullo20100516.mp3]

    Sometimes, you read something that nails a topic so well that you want others to read it.

    So, here goes: Pick up the current New York Review of Books and read Mark Lilla’s piece on the rise of the Tea Party activists.

    Yep, that’s a progressive rag; not everyone is going to agree with Lilla’s position. But he still offers a fresh, thoughtful take on this fascinating populist surge.

    In short, Lilla describes the Tea Party as a long-brewing, but still novel hybrid of populist anger and libertarian individualism.

    It is fueled, he says, by a brisk disgust at the failures of politics as usual, a stunning confidence in the abilities of individuals to solve their own problems, and a thorough disdain for the very idea of expertise.

    Here’s Lilla: “Americans are and have always been credulous skeptics. They question the authority of priests, then talk to the dead.” Unlike other societies, he says, Americans operate “on the general principle that expertise and authority are inherently suspect.”

    I’d like to zero in on this contempt for experts.

    For decades, movement Conservatives have been doing a riff against the supposed cluelessness of pointy-headed coastal elites. But that’s not the only reason this anti-expert stance is now part of the mental furniture of Middle America.

    As a journalist, I’m a card-carrying member of the fact-lovers faction. But I see how my team can be guilty of a misguided contempt for values-driven, experiential wisdom.

    The famous pollster Daniel Yankelovich wrote brilliantly about America’s “two conversations.” The elite conversation worships facts, research and analysis. The other, colloquial conversation deals more in values than analysis; it figures out what it thinks by trading anecdotes, not charts and graphs.

    Here’s Yankelovich’s key insight: Neither conversation is intrinsically superior. Each is valid. Each is flawed. Each has much to teach the other. Neither can arrive at stable solutions to societal problems without listening to the other.

    But dialogue between the two conversations has broken down. In the digital age, each is retreating to its own silo, its own cable channel, its own sages.

    I see no easy solutions. But hope begins with Yankelovich’s wisdom: Each conversation needs to learn from the other, instead of dismissing it with nasty, bumper-sticker rhetoric.

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