Courtesy of Glenn Beck, America’s #1 Teabag Gasbag, around 60,000 protestors marched on Capitol Hill today, and a more motley crowd you never saw. I use the word motley in the sense of incongruous or nonsensical, as evidenced by the protest signs they were carrying. Barack Obama can be many things to many people, but he cannot be a Marxist, Nazi, Socialist, Fascist, Kenyan Muslim Jew all at the same time.
You can’t have a protest if the crowd can’t agree on what it is protesting. By caricaturing Obama as the embodiment of all evil (quite a few signs depicted him as Satan), the protestors lost not only cohesion, but also coherence. So maybe the way to describe what this Teabag party had in common was ”œanger.” Also, they were virtually all white people, most of them baby boomers, no doubt a few of them carrying concealed weapons, and the overwhelming number of them seriously overweight. But here again, we get back to incongruity. How can anyone take your protest against socialized medicine seriously when you are marching in your motorized scooter, bought for you by Medicare?
We can’t dismiss these teabag protestors just because they are incomprehensible. In states where it is legal to carry weapons in public, a few of the protestors have showed up with automatic rifles, even at venues where the president himself was speaking. These protestors can easily evolve into the fascist, brown-shirt arm of the American right, ready to be used for intimidation or violence.
There are other, obvious reasons to be concerned. These teabag parties represent the newly disenfranchised white, rural voter ”“ the backbone of the Republican Party and its southern strategy. The outburst this week by Rep. Joe Wilson, the obscure South Carolina Congressman who called President Obama a liar during his speech to a joint session of Congress, was prompted by Obama’s statement that nothing in the healthcare reform package he is proposing would provide care for illegal immigrants.
The fear of immigrants is a primal constant in American politics, but since the adoption of the southern strategy, this fear is at its core a racial concern. Immigration in the past 30 years is no longer about poor white people coming from Europe, it’s about brown people coming from Mexico. Now that an African-American is president, protests against illegal immigrants can be a respectable way for people to say what is really on their mind ”“ they cannot accept a black person as president.
Something else that was highly significant about Rep. Wilson’s shout-out was that he himself was lying ”“ none of the reform bills in front of the Congress allows any provision of healthcare for illegal immigrants. Perhaps we should start with the fact that Joe Wilson doesn’t actually exist ”“ his real name is Addison Graves Wilson, Sr. Joe Wilson is a faux-populist pseudonym used to give Addison Wilson some credibility as an average Joe with the voters, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he isn’t interested in the facts or the reality of what is actually being discussed and proposed in Congress.
Joe Wilson is the embodiment, as are the Teabaggers and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, of the challenges the political right in America has with reality and its well-known liberal bias. It is now perfectly acceptable for Republican politicians to distort and deny reality, assert any lie they wish about Democrats or liberals, and then have the hypocrisy to accuse the Democrats or liberals of being themselves the liars. This propensity confuses the political discussion (such as it is these days what with all the shouting), but the real danger it poses occurs when the Republicans win national office, because they no longer have an ability to govern effectively since they don’t operate in the real world. Supposedly it was Karl Rove who spoke triumphantly of the Bush administration’s ability to create its own reality, and this type of thinking is what virtually every Republican politician displays these days.
But what is most odd and fascinating about the teabag movement, and certain media leaders like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, is the tendency to lift themes from the liberal protests that began during the Bush administration, and to use them as their own. I’m not making an argument of equivalence here; George Bush used intimidation to wrest the presidency from Al Gore, while Barack Obama overwhelmed John McCain in popular and electoral voting, and won the presidency fair and square. What happened following these ”œvictories” was similar, though. The left never accepted George Bush as a legitimate president, and the right denies Obama’s legitimacy as well through the birther movement. The right has to use a trumped up, fantastical argument that Obama is an unconstitutional president, since it has no real facts to support its case, but the underlying core feeling is that Obama in the world as they know it could not possibly be president.
A second theme is the level of disgust each side has with deficit spending. Liberals watched George Bush turn the Clinton-Gore surplus into the biggest federal deficit ever, for the purpose of transferring more wealth to the rich and funding an illegal, misbegotten and mismanaged war. Conservatives see Barack Obama expanding the deficit even further, in an attempt to bring ”œsocialism” to America in the form of a larger, more intrusive federal bureaucracy. It’s not so much that either side has a problem with deficit spending, as it is for what purpose the spending is used. There is the usual heavy dose of Republican hypocrisy at work here ”“ after eight years of sitting by mutely, acquiescing in Bush’s reckless spending, the right is suddenly galvanized by fiscal prudence? Not really. It is how this money is spent that motivates Republican protests.
Both sides have miserable economic conditions they can decry and blame on the other side. The Republicans have much more to work with here ”“ the economy has tanked into a depression brought about by the collapse of the credit system. The Republicans have to abandon all sense of shame and remorse and wallow completely in hypocrisy, ignoring the devastating economic damage caused by Bush’s eight years of a housing bubble and financial deregulation. The more sensitive Republicans can just dump Bush completely and claim he never represented conservatism anyway ”“ he was a liberal in disguise. Just never mind the fact they didn’t dare protest him while he was in office.
The most intriguing similarity, though, is the reliance on anti-corporatism. The left has a long tradition of suspicion of corporate power to work with in its current campaign against vested corporate interests, such as the lobbyists that dominate Congress, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries that have wrecked health care, or the industrial complex that feeds off military largesse. The left has added to this a sense of amazement and disdain over the way the financial industry has not only destroyed the economy, but managed to get the taxpayers to fund their errors through trillion dollar bailouts.
Lou Dobbs has long been a voice on the right criticizing corporate influence on the political process, and he has been joined by Glenn Beck who forecasts an economic and social Armageddon as this depression rolls on, and who sees socialism or communism at work in the degree to which the federal government now has replaced the banks as the source of capital in this country. Leftist commentators were equally vociferous in condemning the banking bailout when Henry Paulson was running the show, but what they saw was not socialism at work, but crony capitalism at work and corruption and greed run rampant on Wall Street.
What the right and left have in common is a sense that the economic, financial and political system is broken; that corruption dominates policy making in this country; that this ”œGreat Recession” is greater than is being let on by the government; that the media are in the pockets of big business and the banks and are therefore not reporting on the true and desperate situation facing the country; that Constitutional power has been usurped by the presidency against the interests and rights of the people; and that social order is breaking down as this country slips into a third world banana republic.
There must be at least some partial truth in these feelings. There is after all deep economic pain being felt throughout an economy in which the true level of unemployment/underemployment runs around 17%, and in which living standards are deteriorating sharply. Both sides, therefore, have a surprising degree of unanimity on the problems. The left happens to see government intrusion as a necessary and temporary expediency to get the economy moving; the right sees this intrusion as permanent and a debilitating expansion of the socialist state erected by FDR and Lyndon Johnson.
The different interpretations of the role of government in solving this crisis are wide and deep between the right and the left. The critical question, therefore, is whether the similarities when it comes to recognizing the problems are enough for the right and left to find common ground. If they did, the country wouldn’t be quite as politically polarized as it is, because the right and left would be both arrayed against corporate power and the entrenched Washington political and media elite. To give an example, both sides would have reason to get rid of Timothy Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and the entire Obama economic team, because they represent the failed status quo. There would be agreement that change is needed, but there wouldn’t be much agreement on who or what policies were to follow.
Could we see a day in which teabaggers and liberal activists join forces in public protests? Given continued economic deterioration, anything is possible ”“ in fact it is quite plausible that many sectors of the public could rise up against the ”œestablishment”. What is missing is, first, the necessary economic collapse, and second, the right sort of leader. We’ve already had a terrible economic setback, and the road we are on suggests an economic collapse ala Argentina in this decade is possible though not yet probable.
But we definitely do not have the right sort of leader. Limbaugh and Beck are spokesmen for disenfranchised white people railing against their inevitable demographic status as a minority in a country dominated by blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other non-white immigrants. These men use the current economic disorder and disgust with the bank bailouts as tools to stir up what is essentially a racist movement. No one has yet appeared on the right who is able to play the role of leader in an effort to throw out the established economic and financial order. The cranky Ron Paul isn’t that person, though some of his ideas regarding the Federal Reserve and the cost of the empire have the possibility of resonating deeply across the political spectrum.
No one on the left has risen to that position either. Barack Obama had the potential but has shown himself captive to the status quo and much more interested in ”œfixing” a corrupt system rather than overthrowing it. He would need a massive conversion of spirit to want to overthrow the system rather than reform it, though again, anything is possible. FDR did not enter office as an agent for radical change; he became one by necessity and one can debate just how radical his changes were. To the average European politician, FDR looks like he brought a bit of European socialism to the US system, but nothing like what certain European countries have set up and come to love.
So the left watches the right and the right watches the left, each side criticizing the other, and neither willing to admit the remarkable similarities that have begun to appear on each side of the political spectrum. The similarities are in the diagnosis of the depth of the problems and the need to replace the existing establishment in Washington in order to do anything about it. We need to watch for a sequence of events to occur that would portend significant change for the United States. This sequence would include:
a) Substantial further deterioration in the economic order, for which there is reasonable expectation given the amount of debt liquidation still required from the private and public sector,
b) An awakening moment when the right and left realize they have common cause in overthrowing the economic and political elites which brought about this disaster,
c) The rise of a leader who can channel the anger into productive protest, and who can grab the levers of power, one hopes with constitutional legitimacy. This leader may be from the right or left, or equally possible, from neither end of the spectrum and therefore appearing as an outsider ready to chuck both liberal and conservative control over policy and the tools used to change policy.
Once these three things happen, the real fight can begin. Will the US accept more of the socialism that characterizes France, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, etc.? Will a more rigid, right wing regime take over as is often seen in banana republics, and if so, what role will corporations play in a system that is often heavily reliant on crony capitalism? Will something else evolve?
Whatever happens, the potential for momentous change is growing. It is at these moments when a system that appears permanently rooted is most vulnerable. We are used to seeing the same men ”“ mostly men at least ”“ occupying the committee chairs in Congress, the cabinet and commission seats in the administration, the anchor and newspaper columnist posts in the media, the generalships and admiralties in the military. We cannot imagine all of them being swept away, much less their positions being abolished or disappearing in irrelevance. But such is the nature of our problems, and of our despair, that a mass political and economic extermination is not just possible but becoming probable.
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