05/17/2010 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NYT's Douthat: Tea Party And Other Populist Moments Mask Power Elite

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat rather deftly packs the lion's share of free-floating discontent that I've been feeling into a sharp shot, contending that in this seemingly "populist moment" -- where public discontent appears to be in full flower -- behind the scenes, all of the existing power structures are essentially retrenching.

But look through these anti-establishment theatrics to the deep structures of political and economic power, and suddenly the surge of populism feels like so much sound and fury, obscuring the real story of our time. From Washington to Athens, the economic crisis is producing consolidation rather than revolution, the entrenchment of authority rather than its diffusion, and the concentration of power in the hands of the same elite that presided over the disasters in the first place.

Douthat goes on to cite copious examples: the sturdy persistence of "too big to fail" institutions, President Barack Obama's retention of the unitary executive powers that the Bush White House claimed as its own and the perverse way that the protege's of yesterday's failures remain in charge. Meet the new Committee to Save the World, same as the old Committee to Save the World.

I particularly like Douthat's use of the "sound and fury" metaphor. To make something of a cynical observation, it never ceases to amaze me just how good our society is at allowing the outlet of public catharsis. Tea Partiers get to march and rage and take a scalp or two. Legislators yell at bankers and corporate executives at the center of, say, massive oil spills. Everyone gets to vent, and once all that emotion is expended, the beat goes on. Party hacks like Dick Armey are ensuring that the Tea Party movement gets subsumed within the GOP establishment. And lawmakers put on a great show, beating up on the Goldman Sachses of the world, but nobody's really poised to bring down the House of Blankfein.

President Barack Obama was reportedly very "angry" after those Gulf oil spill hearings, and the spectacle of BP-blaming-TransOcean-blaming-Halliburton-blaming-BP and around and around it went. I was angry, too. Yet I marveled at how wonderfully convenient all the interlocking corporate entanglements were. Almost as if they'd drawn it up that way!

Well, everyone had a good time, yelling.

The Great Consolidation [New York Times]

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