After the Midterm Elections
As 2010 draws to a close our thoughts are on the implications of the November midterm elections for those of us who stand against bigotry and defend human rights. Tea Party themes dominated this election cycle and helped to sway key parts of the electorate – especially registered independents. Exit polls suggest that an alarming 40% of 2010 voters support the Tea Party. The meaning of the election is, of course, a good deal more complex. In this short space we hope to share a few, hopefully provocative, thoughts about what has happened and what we must do now.
Let’s first ask, “What is this Tea Party?” The Right’s campaign message of deficit cutting and general fiscal restraint has barely concealed the deep divisions between grassroots factions – generally Nativist, libertarian, Christian Nationalist, or some mixture – and the well-heeled interests who poured many millions into Tea Party-endorsed candidacies on the Republican Party ticket. Are the various Tea Party groups corporate “Astroturf” campaigns, as some critics claim, or are they decentralized networks just as concerned with imposing an exclusionary definition of who is really an American as with fixing the economy or limiting the role of government?
Our answer is, “Yes.” The Tea Party phenomenon is both top-down and bottom-up. “Tea Party, Inc.” groups like Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works have successfully channeled resentment brewing at the base towards their own ends – notably the fight against health care reform and the election of conservative Republicans. But there is also a disturbingly large grassroots Tea Party constituency animated by the classic right-wing populist narrative which holds that “real,” “productive” Americans are being squeezed from above by elites (think Congress and bailed-out bankers with million-dollar bonuses) and from below by “parasitic” classes (think immigrants, Blacks, the undeserving poor), whom the elites lavish with hard-earned tax dollars in a corrupt scheme to maintain their own power. Conservative Christians make up a sizable portion of the Tea Parties’ base and bring with them concerns about abortion, the “gay agenda,” and moral traditionalism. The common campaign season chant of “Take Back America” should prompt us to ask, “Take back from whom?” and, “Restore to whom?”
We have seen this movie, and we’re pretty sure you won’t like the ending. Historically, such movements exact vengeance on the most vulnerable sectors of society without seriously challenging the entrenched power of elites. The Tea Parties will surely not reverse our outrageous, historic levels of income inequality, but they will continue and even accelerate attacks on societal scapegoats.
It’s hard to see how the new Congress could make a real dent in the deficit, given the sacrosanct nature of defense spending and entitlements. Will their base be satisfied with stripping away those parts of government seen as unfairly benefitting “others”?
Could cutting “massive discretionary spending” (code for education and social services) be enough to hold the “Tea Party coalition” together?
The right-wing power brokers who made the Tea Parties an electoral phenomenon have to calculate whether continuing to fan the flames of Christian and White Nationalism can deliver a governing majority or whether it is more likely to burn their bridge to the White House in 2012 by resulting in the nomination of an unelectable presidential candidate. Letting the attack dogs loose in this way could escalate violence and bigotry on the ground. On the other hand, if the new Republican majority appears incapable or unwilling to adequately address grievances at the base, we could see a revival of even more militant formations, such as armed militia groups, and escalating incidents of violence against perceived enemies.
None of these scenarios is good news.
For progressives, perhaps the most significant lesson of the 2010 campaign season is an old one: that social movements can and do reorient “the national conversation” and the priorities of major political parties. In November the shift was to the right, as it has been more often than not over the last several decades. We as progressives have failed to establish a pole that could pull such discourses and parties consistently in our own direction, a pole clearly and unashamedly to the left of the Democratic Party. We must make this a priority. The time for such action is both long past due and – given the leverage the elections have delivered to the Right – especially urgent. The alternative is a further drift to the right, regardless of the party in power.
A second priority is to rigorously defend immigrants, LGBT persons, people of color, women, and other communities that are certain to be continuing targets of the Right. Whether Arizona’s outlandish “papers please” law profiling Latinos proves to be overreaching or a nightmarish bellwether will depend on whether we can successfully draw a line in the sand and convince a majority of the electorate not to cross into increasingly bigoted territory. These struggles will be hard-fought. Issues like Constitutional birthright citizenship give the Right a contemporary version of the potent race, sex, and morality fable that Ronald Reagan put to such devastating effect with his stories about “welfare queens.” It is, however, essential that we use such defense work as an opportunity to build a long-term organizing infrastructure in these same communities, which is critical to the prospects of a new national progressive coalition.
Even as we challenge the Right, a third and simultaneous priority is to compete with it for the millions of predominantly White working- and middle-class people who share many of our values and concerns but have been influenced by right-wing explanations for our societal woes. In the November elections, 38% of Whites who cast votes nationwide supported Democrats. In the South that figure was 27%. The Tea Party’s Nativist rhetoric exhorts White people to “Take America back!” Our job is to bring many of them into our own fold.
The thread running through all of these strategic priorities is the need to build an alternative base of power by organizing real people around pressing issues and shared values. This can be done, but not without a profound shift in strategy or without alarming some of our friends. So be it. As the poet June Jordan reminds us, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
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