Don't Scorn, Organize

For the Democratic Party, the midterm elections could have been worse—but not much. Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle lost (we never dreamed we would find ourselves rooting for the centrist, pugilistic Harry Reid [D-NV]); Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) are in. Here in Massachusetts we retained our Democratic governor and congressional delegation, while our junior Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) has gone from Tea Party hero to Tea Party villain in less than one year.

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However, at the same time, Russ Feingold (D-WI) is out. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are in. The proud obstructionist John Boehner (R-OH) is poised to become House majority leader. And the Republican takeover of state legislatures post-census means they will be drawing the next decade’s election districts.

The questions on our minds in the aftermath are, “How could this have happened?” less than two years after the inspiring inauguration of the country’s first Black president, and “Now what?” How it happened is of course wildly complicated—an unholy mix of Wall Street venality, media distortions, economic recession, racist backlash, nativism, and the focusing of peoples’ grievances onto scapegoats.

President Obama and the Democrats failed to communicate their accomplishments: the passage of health insurance reform and financial re-regulation; withdrawal from Iraq. At the same time, Republicans, conservative pundits, and business leaders had no compunctions about spreading lies about death panels, defunding of Medicare, the ineffectiveness of the stimulus, and so forth. Many people are convinced that during the Obama administration taxes on the middle class have risen—they’ve gone down—and that the economy has shrunk—it’s grown, albeit slowly.

It’s notable that although turnout in the November election was generally high, both African Americans and young people voted in significantly lower numbers than they had in the Presidential election. It may not have been so much the zeitgeist that shifted as it was the large number of voters who saw no hope for change and thus no reason to vote.

And then of course, there are the Tea Parties. We believe that dismissing them as Astroturf—fake grassroots—or deriding them as crazy is inaccurate and dangerous. Social movements are often volatile, especially in their early stages. Given another economic downturn or major terrorist attack, Tea Party militants could be attracted to the growing, armed, citizens-militia movement. Even without a provocative “trigger event,” Tea Partiers are in a position to demand worrisome concessions from the Republican Party.

According to Michael Barkun, a scholar who studies apocalyptic and conspiracist movements, part of the explanation for the emergence of the Tea Parties is that “income inequality has been rising for nearly thirty years but was masked for most of that time by the availability of easy credit and rising home values, which allowed people to use their houses as ATMs.” After the recession hit, with “credit constricted and home prices collapsing, the reality of income inequality began to sink in” for a lot of people. That reality, says Barkun, “has been there for a long time. But the perception is new, a product of the crisis of the last three years, and that perception is shared by both the employed and the jobless.”

Despite their rhetoric, the Tea Partiers are not really antigovernment; most undoubtedly want schools, roads and public transportation, sanitation and stewardship of the environment, protection from crime, fire, and natural disasters—and their enthusiasm for military spending is generally undimmed. They’re just against a government that, as they see it, drains away their money in taxes and redistributes it to the undeserving poor. Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, in their report Tea Party Nationalism [see page XX], debunk the Tea Parties’ self-invented myths, particularly their supposedly sole concentration on budget deficits, taxes, and the power of the federal government. In the ranks, an abiding obsession with Barack Obama’s birth certificate is often a stand-in for the belief that the first Black president of the United States is not a “real American.”

They find the “Tea Party ranks to be permeated with concerns about race and national identity.” In a study of the Tea Party, the University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker found that many Tea Party loyalists harbor troubling biases against Blacks, Latinos/Latinas, immigrants, and LGBT people.

Newly elected Tea Partiers’ loyalties are not to their political party but rather to their ideology, haphazard though it often seems. They may refuse to cooperate not only with Democrats but also with Republicans. This may diminish the Republicans’ ability to pass legislation and tempt Boehner to keep the Tea Partiers out of his hair by unleashing them in congressional investigations—of Obama’s birth certificate, voter fraud, Muslim “terrorists,” immigrant “anchor babies,” and other hot-button issues.  

Even with Tea Party support, though, the Republicans will have trouble delivering on their promise of small government and balanced budgets, since the military allocation is for them sacrosanct, and Medicare and Social Security the proverbial third rails. All that’s left is the minuscule area of social programs, which even if it were eliminated altogether would barely make a dent in the deficit.

The Democrats, for their part, will find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Cave to Republican demands for immigration “reform” that’s all prisons and barbed wire with no path to citizenship, for example, and they lose the support of Latinos and others in their base. Resist, and they are accused of undermining the American worker.

More than 25% of voters said they were primarily angry and frustrated with government, and some 85% of them voted for Republicans in House races. Many, however, are not yet Tea Party true believers.

To reach out to these people, the Democrats must shed their historical terror of being called soft on defense, unpatriotic, tax-and-spenders, liberals, coddlers of lazy, shiftless parasites. Holly Sklar, a progressive strategist, told The Public Eye that one way to gain a foothold among the White working class, small-business owners, and many white-collar workers is for progressive organizers to breathe new life into the slogan that the U.S. economy should be helping “Main Street not Wall Street.” Democrats should hammer on the realities of the U.S. budget; the benefits that education, healthcare, housing, childcare, and other social programs bring to everyone in society; the wisdom of investing in sustainable technologies; and the security guaranteed by responsible membership in a global community. Unfortunately, if past performance is any predictor, the Democrats are more likely to tack to the center in pursuit of the Republicans than to chart a new course.

PRA’s founder and President Emerita Jean Hardisty has long said that the political Right started listening to grievances from the grassroots just as the Left stopped. PRA allies Suzanne Pharr and Paulina Hernandez, along with other shrewd progressives, call on those who want real change to get together with others who “experience similar conditions and share their desires for a different world.” Depending solely on Internet organizing and Get Out the Vote campaigns is not enough, they say, because “no base is built, no community power is increased.” In contrast, groups such as Working America showed in the recent election that door-to-door, face-to-face campaigning can pull people away from their attraction to Glenn Beck and the Tea Parties.

In other words, say Pharr and Hernandez, “Organize! Organize! Organize!”

Fall 2010
Vol. 25, No. 3 :


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