Like a lot of progressives, I’ve been puzzling over the Tea Party phenomenon. Many on the left choose to believe that the hundreds and sometimes thousands who attend the group’s rallies are the same old extreme rightwingers who always have been around — usually content to remain isolated individuals or small groups in the shadows but this time encouraged out in the open by incitement from the FarRight media.
While no doubt, there’s a large truth in that observation, I think it’s a mistake to interpret the Tea Party phenomenon mainly in that reductive, generic way. There are, it appears, a whole lot of newcomers to the agitated fold, frightened by the joblessness, the squeezing of the middle-class, the disappearance of the American Dream, the rapid sociological and demographic changes in the America they knew and felt comfortable in. Many of these folks are sincere but tend to get their narrow views of the world from the rightwing media machine, and thus are open to the simplistic demogoguery of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, FoxNews, et al.
We dismiss them, and more importantly the underlying constituency that the Tea Party represents, at our peril. While many Democrats have indicated in polls that they are not highly motivated to vote in November, these Tea Partiers and their ideological brethren will make up the core of committed rightwing funders, voters and activists in that midterm election. And they are angry as hell and looking for some object for their disaffection. (Making fun of their homemade signs, with all the misspellings, just reinforces their sense of victimhood and rage at the snobbish "elitists" who they see as their cultural enemy.)
What made me start to write this essay was a tragic incident that happened in downtown Oakland, California, a week or so ago in broad daylight. Two young men, 18 years old, with no provocation, attacked and badly beat a young passerby; when the victim’s father tried to intervene, they both attacked him and he hit his head on the cement as he fell. He died a few days later.
The early reports seemed to imply a hate crime: the assailants are African American, the victims are of Asian ethnicity. Further investigation revealed that apparently this was no ethnic hate crime. According to the police, the two young men were depressed about the direction of their lives, "frustrated by personal circumstances" was the wording. The report said they were drinking rum on the street and they just wanted to hit somebody, anybody, in their rage.
It seems that they felt themselves fading from the American Dream snapshot. All they saw were dead ends in a society that seemed to have no use for them. Their anger and resentment were ready to explode out.
LESSONS OF HISTORY
You can’t have millions of unemployed young men hanging around the streetcorners, drinking booze, feeling blocked from finding a decent way out of their predicaments. We all remember newsreel shots of pre-Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s: gangs of disaffected, jobless, resentful young men, many with clubs and guns, roving the streets looking for someone to attack. Many wound up — with a role, a "patriotic" purpose — as the shock troops in the Nazi power machinery, easily swayed by Hitler’s demagogic attacks on various weak, powerless groups: Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, socialists, et al.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the Tea Partiers and their ilk are nascent S.S. thugs (though many don’t mind having the support of those types). But when history offers lessons, it’s wise to pay attention.
The lesson being presented here is that as the traditional social glue is weakening, those angry citizens feeling ignored or demeaned are increasingly looking for some outlets for their fury, someone to hit, as it were. Unless liberals make more of an attempt to understand the sources of their rage and find some way to reconnect them to the civilized hope for change and progress, the left will continue to push them toward the very forces of HardRight extremism that threaten to destroy much of our democratic republic.
It seems clear that in contemporary American society, the center is no longer holding. The institutions that contain us as a nation of like-minded citizens are deteriorating more every day. Try, for example, to find the moderates in the Republican Party. They barely exist. The agents of Know-Nothing extremism remain in control, even though they have led the party to embarrassing national defeats in 2006 and 2008. No wonder men with semi-automatic rifles are going in-your-face at public events, Arizona is turning into a police state, and Sarah Palin is taken seriously as a candidate by a large segment of the country.
ORIGINS OF THE RAGE
The Tea Party is largely at this stage a milling, inchoate mass of anger, resentment and frustration. Its public role, whether sought or unsought, is mostly as a stalking horse for the Republican Party. The tea partiers pretend to be populist, but they won’t oppose the robber-barons on Wall Street. Indeed, these supposed "populist" rebels are silent when the Republicans are in power creating social havoc; they seem to come out of the shadows only when there’s a Democrat in the White House.
But it’s not the makeup of this movement (and those who finance and publicize them) that I want to focus on, but the emotional core of fury that threatens to explode into organized, and especially non-organized, violence by angry citizens perched ever so tenuously on the edge of rightist sanity.
RULES AND RULE-BREAKERS
The Tea Party movement is a loose confederation across the rightwing spectrum: from principled conservatives to KKK racists, armed militia members to Ron Paul libertarians, anti-tax zealots to old John Birchers, et al. Many seem to share the feeling of being used and abused and ignored by those who, they believe, should be paying special attention to them.
You’ve heard a lot of their verbiage. They’re in revolt because they see themselves as "real Americans" who, they believe, are the majority in the country. If the Democrats, who won the elections and are in the actual majority, pass laws they don’t like, that is evidence of governmental "tyranny."
Based on what I’ve heard directly, and from what I’ve read, here’s an amalgam of more of what they believe:
"We play by the rules. We work hard, we pay our taxes, we don’t break the law. But those in power — including many elected officials — ignore the rules. And worst of all, THEY GET AWAY WITH IT!
"Those elitist bastards, including the politicians they’ve bought, hardly ever suffer any penalties. (OK, every so often, a scapegoat gets indicted, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
"In this rotten economy, we’re underwater on our mortgages. Many of us have lost our jobs and benefits. Our pensions and retirement instruments have turned to dross — many of us are just barely scraping by, if we can scrape by at all. Our American Dream is going bust, while our taxes go to prop up lazy folks on welfare."
Again, one would think that believing all that, their anger might be directed toward the captains of finance and industry — those getting richer on the backs of the poor and middle-class who bear the bailout burdens. But still under the sway of their Ayn Randian, pro-business conservatism, they can’t, or won’t, go there. Instead, their anger is re-directed away from the sources of true power to a supposed CommunistMuslimNazi in the White House.
Or, for many on the Tea Party fringe, the enemy is anyone different (liberals, "hippies," gays, "elitist" liberals, etc.) or of color: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants.
ANGER FROM THE LEFT
Liberals have their own passionate objections to aspects of the Obama agenda — and, importantly, share some the anti-corporate sentiments expressed above — but at least their anger is rational, relating to verifiable evidence, with a better sense of who the real enemies of economic justice and progress are.
The Left is angry at Obama as well, because he is maintaining many of the worst CheneyBush policies with regard to civil liberties, torture and imperial wars. But their resentment also derives from his unwillingness to take his own campaign rhetoric seriously. Rather than lead the country to major structural reforms, time and again Obama sides with the capitalist, pro-business forces that are a large part of the problem:
Obama appointed some of the worst foxes (Summers, Geithner, Bernanke, et al.) to guard the financial chicken coop. He never seriously considered a single-payer health-care-reform plan, and made side deals with Big Pharma, Big Insurance, Big Hospital that ensured that there would be no "public option" (i.e., no real competition for lower-cost health insurance) and no cheaper prescription drugs: no Medicare negotiation for lower prices, no less-expensive drugs permitted from Canada. Instead, everyone will have to buy health insurance from the worst offenders in the industry. A boondoggle bonanza for the insurance giants — who, you can be sure, are at this moment figuring out ways of getting around any restrictions placed on their immoral way of carrying out their greedy business.
In short, the major reforms promised by Obama during the campaign wind up being mostly insufficient incremental changes for consumers, while guaranteeing a continuation of the capitalist status quo for giant corporations and their officers: socialism for the rich, dog-eat-dog capitalism for the rest of us. The President’s M.O. is to water down meaningful initiatives, label his small-changes "major reforms," and then move on to the next item on his agenda. The result is that the middle class continues to get hammered, blocking their and their childrens’ route to the American Dream.
SHAPING THE DISCONTENT
If you believe, as I do, that the U.S. will continue to suffer massive unemployment and a sagging economy on Main Street for a good many years — we can probably expect the second major economic dip later in 2010 or early 2011 — then you know that the anger, frustration and rage in the polity will only grow. Fertile hunting grounds for demagogues of all persuasions, but the rightwing is dedicated and organized to try to ride that tiger all the way to control of the White House and Congress. The left, per usual, just seems dazed and confused.
If Obama really does want to be a "transformational" president, he might decide, as FDR did in the 1930s, to openly take on the forces of regression and repression. He could help direct much of that mostly undifferentiated anger and resentment by rallying and educating millions of seething-on-the-sidelines citizens to understand who and where the real enemies of progress and economic justice are.
But Obama just doesn’t seem to be that type of personality, or have that kind of genuine social-justice agenda in mind, and so it might be left to us to organize ourselves into a mass Movement that will take up the cudgel and lead the fight. Whether that can be done within the Democratic Party is unclear at this stage.
The point is that unless someone starts to move to deal with the growing anger in the body politic in a rational, concerted, savvy way, we leave the field to those on the extreme right who seem by their inflammatory rhetoric and reckless actions to be setting the stage for anti-governmental bombings, airplanes into buildings, maybe even an armed rebellion.
Such anti-government attacks likely would not accomplish their desired goal, but success may not be the immediate point. It would appear that the extreme right is looking for dead martyrs to aid their longterm cause — and to help them raise a helluva lot of cash.