The tea party movement is disturbingly racist and reactionary, from its roots to its highest branches. On Saturday, as a small group of protesters jammed the Capitol and the streets around it, the movement's origins in white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement was impossible to ignore. Here's only what the mainstream media is reporting, ignoring what I'm seeing on Twitter and left wing blogs:Two things to take away from this.
- Civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis was taunted by tea partiers who chanted "nigger" at least 15 times, according to the Associated Press (we are not cleaning up language and using "the N-word" here because it's really important to understand what was said.) First reported on The Hill blog (no hotbed of left-wing fervor), the stories of Lewis being called "nigger" were confirmed by Lewis spokeswoman Brenda Jones and Democratic Rep. Andre Carson, who was walking with Lewis. "It was like going into the time machine with John Lewis," said Carson, a former police officer. "He said it reminded him of another time."
- Another Congressional Black Caucus leader, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, was spat upon by protesters. The culprit was arrested, but Cleaver declined to press charges.
- House Majority Whip James Clybourn told reporters: "I heard people saying things today that I have not heard since March 15, 1960, when I was marching to try to get off the back of the bus."
- There were many reports that Rep. Barney Frank was called a "faggot" by protesters, but the one I saw personally was by CNN's Dana Bash, who seemed rattled by the tea party fury. Frank told AP: "It's a mob mentality that doesn't work politically."
First, a lot of "tea partiers" really are racist as all hell. We all knew it, as much as folks like Carville tried to deny it—back when they thought that Republicans could be brought onside for things like health care reform—but now it's absolutely obvious.
Second, right-wing populism ain't going anywhere. The tea party isn't entirely about race; it's tapping into the enormous dislike of American elites right now. It's turning it in a destructive and racist right-wing direction, yes, but it didn't cause that dislike: the behavior of America's political and business elites did.
Health Care is now a done deal. Fine. But Dems who think that this will somehow salve this anger are delusional. The new health regime is fundamentally an elitist activity: one set of elites (in Washington) is requiring you to pay money to another set of elites (at the insurance companies) "for your own good". It's regulating things, and it might be better than the system that exists, but it is still very much a top-down approach. It will do nothing to help this fundamental alienation, and that alienation is what will dominate the next elections.
No, the only way that this will be sorted out is if one set of elites sticks it to another. It could be pro-business leaders sticking it to Washington. That's more likely than you might think: it motivates a lot of deregulation fervor, and is a favorite of Republicans that argue that government "is the problem, not the solution". People go along with it because at least some elites are getting knocked down.
Dems can't do that, though. It doesn't fit their ideology, their themes, or the public's perception of the party. The Republicans will always outdo them on that front. No, the only way they can recover is if Washington sticks it to the big business elites. They need to get populist, and get there fast, before the tea partiers distort and exploit the existing rage even more than they already have.
HCR was a good opportunity to do that, since everybody despises health insurance companies, but the Dems dropped the ball on that one. So it'll have to be finance reform. They have to go beyond wise and minimal regulation. They must be seen to be horrible punitive bastards—and when called on it, they need to frame it as a conflict between the common man and the fat cats that exploit them and grow rich at their expense. It's not difficult for a Dem to pull off, and if you contrast it with small business and businesses that actually make things, you'll do well. (Businesses that make things tend to employ more people, leading to more votes.)
Do I think they'll do anything along that line? No. Not with the Senate the way it is now. Not with the conservative Democratic Senators having been given ample proof that the White House will do and say absolutely anything they want, and that they need never fear the sort of arm-twisting that brought principled progressive Reps like Kucinich on board.
I still think 2010 will be a disaster. The Dems simply Do Not Get It, and the people who are supposed to be speaking truth to power have been almost completely co-opted to support everything the party tells them to. But I do hope that 2010 will change this. I hope that, post-disaster, those people who are so reflexive in repeating the party line will wake up and start doing their damned job. I hope that the progressive movement will finally find its own feet, and realize that its own interests can vary from those of the Dems.
No promises. But one can hope.