By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers
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. Twoyoung men, 18 years old, with no provocation, attacked and badly beat a youngpasserby; when the victim's father tried to intervene, they both attacked himand 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 AfricanAmerican, the victims are of Asian ethnicity. Further investigation revealedthat apparently this was no ethnic hate crime. According to the police, thetwo young men were depressed about the direction of their lives,"frustrated by personal circumstances" was the wording. The report said they weredrinking rum on the street and they just wanted to hit somebody, anybody, intheir 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 forthem. 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 oftheir predicaments. We all remember newsreel shots of pre-Nazi Germany in the1920s and 1930s: gangs of disaffected, jobless, resentful young men, many withclubs and guns, roving the streets looking for someone to attack. Manywound up -- with a role, a "patriotic" purpose -- as the shock troops in theNazi 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 andtheir ilk are nascent S.S. thugs (though many don't mind having the support ofthose 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 increasinglylooking for some outlets for their fury, someone to hit, as it were. Unlessliberals make more of an attempt to understand the sources of their rage andfind 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 HardRightextremism 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 in2006 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 Palinis 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, ismostly as a stalking horse for the Republican Party. The tea partiers pretendto be populist, but they won't oppose the robber-barons on Wall Street.Indeed, these supposed "populist" rebels are silent when the Republicans are inpower creating social havoc; they seem to come out of the shadows only whenthere's a Democrat in the White House.