Tea Party mania! What’s it all about, America?

By Chris Horton

Populism. That is the word for today. Populism used to mean “grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.” One dictionary defines it as “The belief that greater popular participation in government and business is necessary to protect individuals from exploitation by inflexible bureaucracy†and financial conglomerates.”

So how did a conservative, backward-looking movement like the Tea Party, lay claim to this word? How could a movement funded by billionaires and allied with the Republican Party, promoting the gutting of the government services that regular people depend on and spreading the poison of anger at each other, blaming each other, blaming our unions, blaming our neighbors who had to cross a border without papers in search of work, lay claim to the word “populist”?

The short answer is “anger.” The part of populism which the Tea Party has appropriated is expression of the people’s anger. And the liberals, the progressives, the non-profit and Democratic and issue-group activists have allowed them to claim it by default.
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And how did this Tea Party move so quickly from fringe to central player? How did it become a serious threat, identified with according to opinion polls by millions, able to swing or even win elections? To the political classes this seems almost incomprehensible. The anger of the people that is being channeled by this Tea Party is alien to them. Angry people scare them. But the reason they don’t “get it” is that they don’t get what’s going on with us.

The central reality that most regular people – say, the “bottom” 80% of the population – have been living with for maybe the past 20 years, and acutely for the past 2 or 3 years for the “bottom” 90%, is that for us the economy is increasingly failing, becoming a disaster. For working people, small business people and now even the lower ranks of the professions, the social safety net that was fraying is shredding. Inequalities of income, wealth and power have reached record levels, and – unseen by the better-off – fear and want, homelessness and hunger are stalking the land. This reality – thoroughly documented in Grace Ross’s new book Main Street $marts, Who got us into this economic mess and how we get through it … – never makes the pages of the T&G or CNN.

The better-off people and communities, and the “political class”, have failed to respond to our distress, or even see the disaster on the ground. For the top 10% or 20% of the income spectrum things have mostly been pretty good until the market crash of 2008, and for the top few percent these have been good years – really good years. For them the crisis seems nearly over. They’ve been increasingly living in a different reality.

The once-mighty unions that brought us dignity, security and a stable share of a growing pie have been pushed to the margins, fighting a rear-guard action against the gutting of our living standard. The Democratic Party we used to think of as ours is increasingly out of touch and unresponsive, treating us and our unions with neglect at best – squandering our money and our children’s lives on foreign wars we don’t support, giving it away by the billions to the corporations and banks, exporting our jobs and failing to put up a real fight for us.

An increasingly servile corporate mass media fails to reflect our reality or report our struggles. Freedom, fair play, the dignity of hard work and the chance to get ahead and make a better life for our children, the “great middle class”, even the very ideal of America are being trashed. What we need, what we think, what we know and demand, how we vote, seem to make no difference anymore. This doesn’t look much like the country it once was.

The mood is ripe – over-ripe – for a populist rebellion. For the people to take our outrage to the streets – and the ballot boxes – demanding relief, jobs, a new deal, demanding our rights, our birth-right, demanding our country back. Like the Populist Movement that forced the breakup of the monopolies 100 years ago. Like Solidarity in Poland. Like the Revolution we made here in Worcester in 1774. This conversation is going on kitchens, bar-rooms, lunch rooms, lodges and locker rooms across the land. Things are quiet on the surface, but the pressure is building toward a blowout.

This reality of ours is never reflected back to us from television-land or our metropolitan newspapers, but the strategists of the corporate wealthy – the CIA and the Foundation for Democracy, the Carl Roves and Dick Cheneys whose job it is to keep us under control and exploitable know. They have been putting down rebellious populations all over the world for years. They can see the logic of what’s coming here, because they’ve seen it before.

Enter the Tea Party.

Originally conceived of by right-wing operatives like Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, heavily funded by corporate wealthy like the Koch brothers, relentlessly promoted by Fox News and the right-wing talk radio circuit, the Tea Party burst on the scene draped in stars and stripes, dripping with images of the American Revolution – or rather of the phony school-book version, a revolution that led by gentlemen in powdered wigs outraged by high taxes, who organized an armed conspiracy and called the people to war.

The entire corporate media has colluded in anointing this Tea Party as the voice of the people. For example, from “Fair.org”:

The Social Forum, [in June] drew an estimated 15,000–20,000 progressive activists from around the country, while the Tea Party Convention in Nashville hosted a meager 600 attendees. Two activist gatherings striving for political and social change, one at least 25 times larger than the other—but the smaller one got all the media coverage. Across 10 major national outlets in the two weeks surrounding each event, the Tea Party got 177 mentions to the Social Forum’s three. … Aside from local coverage, the only corporate media mentions found in the Nexis database came from Glenn Beck … warning viewers about “socialists and communists coming out of the woodwork to co-opt the youth and spread a dangerous disease”— and[one interview with] Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman on CNN …
Not one major newspaper outside of Michigan covered the story. Time and Newsweek ignored it. The Associated Press didn’t run a single story on its newswire.

This fall’s “One Nation” demonstration in Washington led by the unions, the NAACP and 200 other groups which drew between 150,000 and 200,000 demonstrators demanding jobs, an end to the wars and bailouts, received only a fraction of the coverage of Glen Beck’s rally. In fact, while one can hear sarcasm, wit and devastating critiques of the corporate elite and their flacks on MSNBC, the only reflection in the corporate media of the anger and desperation of the people is from the Tea Party and their allies.

So it is not surprising that many regular people have started to look to the Tea Party as their expression, or that many have started to identify with it.

Yet if we look at the official positions of the Tea Party it is hard to see why any working person would give it the time of day. It is pure Republican, the failed policies of the last 30 years that brought us to our sorry and precarious state today, only ramped up.

The Tea Party calls for “returning our country to conservative values … limiting the size of government, restoration of individual(and corporate) freedoms, rights and responsibilities. Cutting out government regulations – mostly on the corporations. Cutting taxes – mostly on the corporations and the wealthy – and cutting government services for working people. Demanding give-backs from government workers. Blaming “bad teachers” and privatizing the schools. Gun rights and abolishing abortion. Arresting and deporting undocumented workers and denying their children education and health care. Demanding less accommodation of non-English-speakers.

The signs and speeches at Tea Party rallies focus heavily on a supposed plot to foist a foreign-born socialistic alien president on us, take away our guns and coddle the illegals who are taking our jobs.
And the talk show hosts have been pushing the immigration issue relentlessly. It is amusing to listen to Grace Ross being interviewed on those shows. The host will over and over again try to steer the conversation back to “illegal immigrants” while Grace keeps parrying them and talking about joblessness, illegal wars, foreclosures, corporate giveaways.

Yet when I wade into the crowd at a Tea Party demonstration and talk to people, I find that – apart from a few Republican operatives and ideologues – after they’ve vented on the hot-button issues, most will quickly agree that giving $22 trillion to the banks in bailouts and government guarantees is a much more important issue. Most agree that the foreclosure crisis is more important. That ending the wars is more important. And at the counter-protests at immigrant rights rallies most readily recognized that the people they were protesting against would agree with them on these things, and that they would be much more powerful if we weren’t fighting with each other about immigration!
Public opinion polls show this to be true. Exit polls in January showed that while 47% of the union vote went to Scott Brown, it was a vote driven by disappointment with the Democrats for not doing and daring enough!

So while the leadership of the Tea Party is an expression of right wing corporate money and ideology, the rank and file are – our people! Sharing our anger and outrage! Ours to win back!

What then makes the Tea Party so dangerous? Why are so many of our activists scared of it – and of its members?

For one thing, even the best of our Democratic representatives, such as Jim McGovern, don’t really get the anger, don’t identify it, can’t express it, and so are helpless to take it back from the Tea Party. They don’t understand it, and that scares them.

Then, people are ready for a fight! The Tea Party, cockamamie though it may be, is offering to lead people in a fight. Most of our mainstream and Democratic activists don’t see this, aren’t ready, and this scares the pants off them. Over and over again, when I would tell regular people that Grace Ross wasn’t going to go to Beacon Hill to get things for them, that if we elected her Governor we had to know we were picking a fight with the corporations and electing her to lead us in that fight, peoples’ eyes would light up, and their resistance would drop away. They’re hungry for a leader, ready for a fight!

There are some deeper currents that the Tea Party is tapping into, ones that should scare us. Ones that should impel us to urgent action to win the leadership of the people back from them!
Among these deeper currents are a patchwork of fundamentalist cults which preach a doctrine of the coming Armageddon, and welcome it.

Another is a deep belief in the special destiny of America – manifest destiny – my country right or wrong – which leaves us vulnerable to the next manufactured war hysteria.

But perhaps the most dangerous of these deeper currents is the belief that our democracy ultimately depends on our having guns and being ready to use them – a symptom of our failure to understand what the American Revolution really was. Dangerous, because it can be manipulated to sabotage our best hope of taking our country back – our ability to build a broad, united, overwhelming-majority non-violent mass movement to challenge for power. And dangerous because without that we could end up with a situation that makes Beiruit, Bosnia, Bagdad look sane.

We Americans are a heavily armed people, and militia movement of all sorts are growing rapidly. Some are racist, some are anti-foreigner, some are just patriotic working people, but all engage fantasies of one kind or another about civil conflict. Some are linked to the secessionist movements that are in advanced stages in Texas, Alaska and 20 other states, and many are linked to the Oath Keepers, an honorable movement but no one can predict which way it will cut in a crisis.

And the most central organization of the “2nd Amendment” movement, the NRA, is firmly in the control of Corporate America.

Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limabugh and the Tea Party are the face of the corporatist attempt to control and steer these dangerous currents. We can’t let that pass.

We simply must build a real populist movement, now, a non-violent movement to challenge the corporate elite and defend the people, end homelessness and hunger, end the foreclosures and put the people back to work, and break the hold of the corporations and bankers on our government. A movement to take the initiative back from the Tea Party.

History won’t wait if we fail to lead now.

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