There is little doubt that among those tea party activists are individuals
who simply hate Barack Obama — for some blatant racial hatred. But to focus on race is to totally miss
the point. What we should consider
are the telling findings of the recent CBS-NY Times
poll. In sum, the “teas” skew
white, male, older, and (surprisingly) well off. The real, and profound, message of their gathering is not so
much opposition to any specific program but in reflecting a much larger unease about
having a leader who is “not like me”.
That transcends race. As
Arizona’s draconian response to immigration suggests, it is more a fundamental
fear that “others” are taking over “our” land. And fear is the operative word. Of course, such fears and reactions are not necessarily new. We have seen them play out throughout our
history with every wave of immigration and every advance in government or
business of individuals from the heretofore powerless. The difference is that, while earlier
fears of takeover were more imagined than real, demographics alone suggest the
long hegemony of people perceived of as “just like me” — as defined by our idealized American myth — actually is coming to an end.
There is of course an irony in all of this. In one way or another the vast majority of Americans have
been or still are “not like me”. That
African Americans, Hispanics, Jews and Muslims to name a few fall into this
category is obvious. But so do
women who, even at this late date, are still clawing their way into leadership
roles in a “man’s world”. John F.
Kennedy engendered the same kind of hate as does Obama, in his case an Irish
Roman Catholic with the temerity to assume the ultimate and WASP
entitled office. When embarking on that
fateful trip to Dallas, hate was in the air. This is not to suggest in any way that our current President
is destined to meet a similar end, but the ingredients are present, and that
alone is more than disconcerting.
What it does suggest is that fear, especially fear of losing one’s
assumed way of life or the “proper” order of things is dangerous because what
it can produce is so unpredictable.
It was the fear of losing the slave-based life that drove secession and
ultimately a civil war that cost twice as many American lives than did World
War II. So we should be taking the
tea party seriously not for what it is, but for what deep-seated angst it
represents. History suggests that
fear-based movements can’t last, that reality has a way of calming people down
or gaining acceptance (however grudgingly), but a lot of damage can be done in
the interim. The current
environment is particularly explosive because the very theme that brought Obama
to office — change — is emblematically threatening.
Change that’s what we want, until of course we realize that means
CHANGE. Polls have told us for
years that Americans hate Congress, but when it comes down to it they are
loathe to throw out their own incumbent Congressperson. Great, we’ve elected a president who
doesn’t fit the longstanding pattern, who doesn’t look like us (or at least the
us I’m talking about). Progress,
wow. But did you realize our
president is not like me. That’s a
problem if you’re “white, male, older, and relatively well off”, the very
people who have become our problem.
This is 2010 and not 1992 — it’s so much more than the economy stupid.