There is a social movement stirring on the far right of American politics and it bodes ill for our future.
It is, in the classic sense, a movement, not an organization, with no coherent structure, no creed or litmus test for membership. Rather, it represents disparate currents, born of transformative developments and traumatic events that have impacted the U.S. in recent decades.
This movement has manifested itself in several forms. There are the anti-immigrant armed militias patrolling our southern border keeping out “illegals.” There are also the “tax party” demonstrators, many of whom have morphed into the angry chanting mobs that are now disrupting Congressional town meetings over health care reform. And there are the so-called “birthers”, a not so small fringe on the far-right, that questions Barack Obama’s birth in the U.S. and, therefore, his right to hold the office of President.
If the individuals involved in these currents have anything in common, it is that they are angry and alienated and have identified “government” as a source of their problems and, therefore, as a target of their wrath.
Behind all of this discontent, of course, are real problems. The economic crisis in America did not just begin with the collapse of the financial sector in the fall of 2008. For years now, the U.S. economy has undergone a steady transformation. The loss of our manufacturing base has resulted in dramatic social dislocation evidenced by the collapse of many once prosperous and stable communities. As factories closed, not only were jobs lost and economic security threatened, but people were forced to move, neighborhoods died and families were at risk.
All during the 1990’s, despite gains on Wall Street, many middle class Americans were squeezed. Real incomes declined, costs of health care, education and basic commodities rose, resulting not only in a declining standard of living for many, but, for the first time in American history, a significant portion of the middle class began to question whether their children would be able to achieve the same economic status as their parents.
The trauma of 9/11 and Katrina presented a double jolt, shaking to an even greater degree American’s sense of security and their confidence in the government’s ability to perform.
Add to this a nativist/racist current, fueled by large numbers of immigrants from the south and fear of new foreigners (especially, after 9/11, Muslims) and the persistent presence of anti-black sentiment, and you have the ingredients of the lethal brew that is now coming to a boil.
All of this, however, did not erupt spontaneously; it was helped, fueled by fires set by those who sought, in ways subtle and not so subtle, to exploit the fears afoot across the land. Radical talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mike Savage, Fox News and even CNN’s Lou Dobbs exploited these issues–”as did President George W. Bush’s political advisor, Karl Rove, who used it for electoral success. Even Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign playbook tapped into these currents, as did the McCain/Palin campaign strategists.
And so here we are in the midst of a hot summer, with “birthers” fulminating about Obama’s “foreignness”, angry mobs breaking up town meetings, and polling numbers showing a deepening partisan divide across the nation.
All the while these events are unfolding, analysts and commentators are spending endless hours of airtime observing and pointing accusing fingers, without making an effort to understand how this came to be and where it can go. Some conservatives are surely at fault for thinking they can simply exploit this anger, turning it on and then off, at will. And some liberals, too, are at fault for dismissing the anger they see, suggesting that it is simply manufactured and artificial and, therefore, can be ignored.
I am reminded of similar developments that occurred in 1919 at the beginning of the “Red Scare.” Then too, a national movement, fueled by fears of immigration, economic dislocation and war-time anti-foreign bigotry was exploited by some, ignored by others, until it got out of control, with lethal consequences.
If we are not careful and understanding, and if we do not start now, both to address this troubling anger and alienation, and to hold accountable those who are stoking the embers of discontent, we could end up in the throes of a full-fledged nativist siege that could tear apart the fabric of our nation.