Thursday, August 25, 2011

Our bubbles abound.

We all live in a bubble.  Yes all of us.  The bubbles may be different.  In my case, living many years in Manhattan and now in Chapel Hill, both locales not necessarily indicative of their surrounding areas or the country as a whole.  But so too are many other places across the land not to mention the United States itself —all bubbles.  There are also the more personal bubbles of family, friendship circle, political ideology, ethnicity and religion.  Few of us inhabit a single bubble.  Instead, we navigate multiple, often seamlessly interwoven, bubbles working in tandem.  Nonetheless, there are times when one of our individuated bubbles may emerge as a primary determinant force that, if only in the moment, colors everything we see and do.

Much like mirrors, bubbles reflect inward, confining and thus limiting our vision.  As a result, we may think (even if we know better) that our particular bubble represents all that is.  We don’t appreciate or fully understand what lies beyond its walls and, on some visceral level, come to believe that ours embodies the only truth —the only valid worldview.   So those beyond our sphere are somehow seen as clueless, often leading to misguided actions on our part.  They feel the same about us and with the same result.  Bubble myopia, has always stood in the way of productive communications, but I would argue is particularly problematic and harmful today.  The irony is that communications have never been more enabled, access to a broad range of ideas at our fingertips.  That we are in such a state of misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility may be a tribute — albeit a sad one — to the strength of the robust bubble system in which we function.

Bubbles can be instruments of deception.  If our personalities are strong enough, or the noise we make loud enough, we can momentarily draw others into our bubble mindset convincing them that our narrative is of outsized importance.  The media, always on the hunt for news, real, imagined or even fabricated, is particularly susceptible to this delusion.  They emerge from a visit to our bubble as co-conspirators, not merely enablers but also active mythmakers.   In fact, so much of what they do these days is to draw us all deceptively into synthetic bubbles whose breadth and consequence they exaggerate and whose message they either misread or distort.

The bubble mentality has been particularly damaging to our political process.  Not only are we locked, fortress-like, into singular positions; we also have become convinced that ours is the only tenable approach to addressing opportunities and problems alike.  We, after all, possess the truth.  It isn’t only that this kind of bubble thinking has cut off meaningful dialogue; it has also provided fertile ground for fringe groups.  Perhaps because the ideas they espouse are so far at the edge, their influence may have a short shelf life but not before they do great damage.  No political party has shown itself more vulnerable to fringe movements than the Republicans.  In this presidential cycle, the most radical of its members are running rampant while, for example, Mitt Romney lays as low as possible hoping to emerge out of the dust to save the day.  Who knows where his gamble will lead?  Regardless, In all of this bubbles play a significant role.

Take the one called Iowa where about 17,000 rank and file Republicans, whose dance cards are underwritten by individual campaigns, conduct a quadrennial presidential straw poll.  Given the airtime, ink and digital coverage one might think this was a truly momentous event, a predictive gage of how Republicans across the country think and will act.  In the end, a winner is declared and boldly memorialized in headlines — in 2011 that would be Michelle Bachmann.  Well, it’s fair to ask, what exactly constitutes a winner?  This year it means garnering a humble 28.5% of the Ames vote.  Reality check: about 71.5% (an overwhelming majority) voted for someone else, one could say against her.  Perhaps she is a winner in the sense of getting marginally more votes (Ron Paul a hairbreadth behind) than anyone other individual, but imagine if such a victory would bring her to the White House.  Italian or Israeli style fragmented government anyone?  To be sure, Bachmann is the current darling of some voters including the hard religious right and she might do well in real go-to-the-poll primaries, but it remains that the Iowa Republican caucus is a bubble.   

Speaking of the religious right, there is the bubble housing Texas’ Rick Perry and the participants in his Response Rally in Houston.  Governor Perry proclaimed August 7th as a day of prayer and fasting.  As detailed on a Terry Gross Fresh Air program, two ministries of the extreme, I’d say revolutionary, apostolic prophetic end of times movement planned and orchestrated the event.  Let’s not concern ourselves here with either this disturbingly radical group or the church-state issues raised by Perry’s official proclamation, but rather with the prayer day bubble.  According to Focus on the Family, 22,000 gathered to share the experience.  It was widely covered by the media.  Given the announcement Perry was to make in South Carolina only days later, I look at Houston as the trailer for the new movie, Mr. Perry runs for President.   Others may see the gathering as a sign of a religious right resurgence.  After all, that’s a big crowd gathered together for public prayer.  Not so fast.  Remember Perry’s sponsors rented a stadium seating 71,000 and tickets were free.  It’s hard to see how any promoter or performer would call filling less than a third of the available seats a resounding success.  To put this turnout in perspective, consider the 300,000 out of Israel’s 7.5 Million who took to Tel Aviv’s streets (my last post) compared with 22,000 out of 26 Million Texans who gathered in Houston.  I’d suggest a bubble not a groundswell or resurgence.

Bachmann and Perry occupy the Republican bubble, one not to be underestimated, but they also share a place in the bubble called religion.  Many millions in America and around the world live in that bubble in all of its diverse expressions, few as radical as theirs.  Nonetheless, religious bubbles share the characteristics of all others and most especially for people sometimes described as social conservatives.  Seeing beyond that bubble is simply not in their playbook.  If they would just look out, they would actually find an unmistakable trend among Americans, especially young people, of moving away from rather than to religion.  Since the last election, for example, attitudes have changed radically regarding same sex marriage, long a favorite wedge issue.  The majority (53%) now support such unions.  But don’t expect either of these candidates of the religious right bubble to be quoting this statistic on the campaign trail.

The Tea Party they actively court is the most notable political fringe bubble currently on the scene.  We all now know how fiscal matters — most especially deficits and taxes — play in their conservative political agenda, but how about religion?  It turns out, according to Professors David Campbell and Robert Putnam that the Tea Party and religion are closely bound together.  In an August 16 NY Times Op-Ed, they wrote…next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter…[is] to see religion play a prominent role in politics.  Teas …seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates…are much more interested in social conservatism than anything else and often personally active members the religious right.  Teas, most especially, may be living in a delusional bubble.

A recent CBS/Times Poll suggests Tea Party disapproval ratings have more than doubled (from 18% to 40%) in the last ten months.  Campbell and Pitman reported that the Tea Party ranks lower than any of the 23 other groups we asked about — lower than both Republicans and Democrats.  It is even less popular than much maligned groups like “atheists” and “Muslims.” Interestingly, one group that approaches it in unpopularity is the Christian Right.  I’m not surprised that the two groups track closely together — are part of the very same minority bubble.  If the two researchers are correct in saying that religion (specifically social conservatism) ranks number one on the Tea’s agenda, then all their talk about deficits and debt ceilings may be a smoke screen, a political calculation that issues like government spending sell better than God.

It’s striking that Teas in Congress speak little of jobs, except in criticizing the President for not producing them, but focus on spending cuts that actually are likely in increase not alleviate unemployment.  The Tea’s demographics tell us why.  These are not, the researchers tell us, a group of nonpartisan political neophytes, but rather were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born and they are mostly white and, I would guess mostly employed or part of a wage earning family.  If we live in a culturally and ethnically diverse society, which includes religious and not religious people, the Teas do not.  Their bubble is a closely defined homogeneous circle kept in tact.

While certainly not obliged to give equal time in this blog, I do think it important to focus briefly on the bubble inhabited by those of us who consider ourselves left, progressive or liberal.  You chose what fits.  We may be correct in our thinking — bubbles give you that confidence — but we tend to be just as myopic as anyone else.  Republicans have lionized Reagan, we Franklin D. Roosevelt.  That we have to reach that far back is interesting, but that’s for another day.  As with the hero in any bubble, we like to engage in a glossy and selective reading of history.  We hail FDR’s for heroically ending the Depression and Defeating the WWII Axis.  Left out of this lofty story is that far from being an idealist or ideologue, FDR was a pragmatic patrician.  His misjudgment and capitulation to conservatives almost took the country back into Depression.  He was charismatic but largely cautious and slow to act.  Churchill had to drag him kicking a screaming into intervening in the European theater, and only a sneak attack forced him to so engage in the Pacific.  It took Give ’em Hell Harry to integrate the armed forces — that, after the war had ended.  From within our bubble, all Republicans seem wrongheaded and blindly pro-business, a large percentage of them just plain kooks.  In contrast, we’re self righteously for the workers and of course against the indulgent rich.  That may be the case, but many of our number are just as interested in success, accumulation of wealth and the very good life.  Does that make us all disingenuous hypocrites?   Certainly not, but we do live in a bubble with its own narrow view and prejudices.  We are as intolerant of other bubble dwellers as anyone else.

The point here is not to say that all bubbles are wrong or that they are not an inevitable part of life.  Perhaps with all the possibilities open to us, they are the only way to manage things and maintain our sanity.  The point rather is to say we should recognize our bubbles for what they are and seek to overcome their natural barriers, to look beyond their walls with some modicum of an open mind.  Only then will meaningful discourse be possible and ultimately only then will we be able to address the vast problems that lay before all of us regardless of what bubble we may call home.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oh, let's not talk about it.

…earlier, those who worked — and almost all the women and men worked very hard — could make a modest but respectable living for themselves and their families. …But all that has been destroyed in the past 30 years, as the big-capital governments encouraged and inflamed the economic jungle laws of grab as grab can.

Don’t these words perfectly describe the current condition of our United States?  In fact they are from an August 2 Haaretz essay by Amos Oz.  The eminent Israeli writer was commenting on the state of life in Israel where tents of protest have sprung up across the country.  There have also been a series of Saturday demonstrations, the largest on August 6 when an estimated 300,000 citizens took to the streets in Tel Aviv.  That’s an astounding number for country of Israel’s size — the equivalent of 13 Million of us marching in an American city.  For sure the specific issues facing the Israelis and us are somewhat different, but what strikes me is an underlying commonality. 

Frustration and a lack of proportionality — that very few have it all while very many have so little — is what’s making ordinary people angry.  I’ve been waiting for the Arab Spring, the power of peaceful citizen protest, to infect the Palestinians.  Instead it comes to Tel Aviv, which tells how universal/catching it is and as both Gandhi and King demonstrated in their day, how potentially  powerful.  That’s especially so for the young who drove the Tahrir Square uprising and are playing a considerable role in this protest.  As Oz put it, …this protest…was born out of the devotion and enthusiasm of hundreds and thousands of young people who swept in their wake the best people in the country.

Interestingly these protests in Israel (joined in by Jews, Muslims and Christians) are coming from, or at least attracting the attention of, the country’s left.  It’s too early to tell, but that may suggest a long overdue reawakening for the once dominant but recently dormant political ideology eclipsed for years by the right and far right.  Sound familiar?  Significantly this rebellion seems the polar opposite of our rightist Tea Party, a movement characterized by self-righteous anger.  Just look at the joyous protest exhibited in this YouTube video (brought to my attention by Gadi Jacobson).

In an August 5th NY Times report correspondent Ethan Bronner opened with these words: The tent protest movement dominating Israel for three weeks focuses on the cost of living but is really about something deeper — the nature of the country’s social contract.  That may be the case, but I would suggest that for Israelis and indeed for Americans, the issue facing us today transcends social contract.  It goes to the very heart of national identity.  Who are we and what do we want to be?

For Israel, as articulated by Oz and others, what’s on the table includes specifics like Israeli-Palestinian peace, West Bank settlements and the government’s financially underwriting the Ultra-Orthodox who have contempt toward the state, its people and the 21st-century reality.  You might accurately call them the enemy from within and we surely have some of those as well.  Among our issues are: a commitment to unwinnable wars that drain our spirit and treasure, a growing imbalance in income and standard/quality of living, the allocation of shared national resources, the relative importance of deficits at the time when even qualified millions can’t get a job and, I might add, a still unresolved role of religion — specifically a particular kind of religion espoused by Rick Perry types — in our local and national public life.

These questions are of a time as much as of a place.  Similar ones are confronting countries throughout the developed world, especially in the West.  European countries once ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies are facing pluralism, natural to Americans (or so we tell ourselves) but alien to them.  This identity crisis has hit especially hard in the most open and progressive societies across Scandinavia, but they are hardly alone.  Even in China there is the obvious disconnect between the economic miracle that makes for headlines and the political stagnation that is kept out of them — unbounded entrepreneurism vs. authoritarian rule.  It is a dichotomy yet to be faced, at least openly. 

Just as the protests in Israel are exposing major flaws in that society and an urgent need to address more than the immediate symptoms, so too is it with our current and surreal debate about deficits and spending.  Any economist or political scientist, regardless of ideology, can tell you that there is noting more revealing about a society and its values than how it spends, or doesn’t spend, its resources.  The allocation of funds is a window into our national soul as reflected in our priorities, even those dictated by the inevitable circumstances beyond our control.  Not every nation answers terrorist attacks by launching major wars.  Not every country will unquestioningly spend money it doesn’t have to save victims of natural disasters, even those knowingly living on a flood plain.  When spending on defense continues at extraordinary levels and beyond what seems reasonably required while funds for education are cut to the bone, it tells us a lot.

But the details of any of these things, however important — and they are — is not the issue at hand.  In fact, I would suggest they are a distraction, often a purposeful one.  Dealing solely with the immediately pragmatic, even if it requires inventing a crisis (like the debt ceiling fiasco) to keep our mind fixed on the wrong target, is all that counts.  We simply don’t want to face, much less talk about, the underlying fundamental issue of identity.  Nowhere is that more evident than in watching an American election season unfold.  Nowhere is talk more laden with silliness, obfuscation and non-sequiturs then on the campaign trail.  Presidential debates tend to be everything but.  Instead of engagement, dare say the discussion of anything really serious, these performances are nothing but canned speech making, posturing and, whenever possible, headline grabbing punch lines.  Most striking, as seen in the current Republican field, candidates exhibit an astounding level of like-mindedness, each one assuring the audience that she or he tows the party line, whatever that may be at a given time.  I believe in God, oppose all taxes, hate government spending or in the case of Democrats will protect and defend Social Security and Medicare, regardless of cost.

Recent polls suggesting the low esteem in which our government is held are usually read in political terms.  Who is likely to win in 2012 and what especially are the implications for incumbents including the President.  I look at them differently.  To me these low numbers and the declining trend line of which they are part indicate there is little we can hope for from our politicians.  I hesitate to call them leaders.  It isn’t just this year but perhaps for much of our history that the last people we can expect to think big thoughts or to articulate anything but pabulum, or today vitriol, are those we elect to govern.  Who is up and who is down, who is a real American and who is not, who favors this or that is all we get.  Who are we, where are we going and why?  Let’s not talk about that.

People say they are very disappointed in President Obama.  He gives far too much ground in negotiation, he fails to inspire enough, he should be more of a fighter…you know the conventional narrative.  I’m not sure that he is anything other that what he promised to be (if we were really listening): a conciliator more than a partisan, a person of change, yes, but pragmatic change in the spirit of Teddy Kennedy who ultimately went with what could be accomplished.  But that’s really another conversation.  What’s important here is the even from one of the most thoughtful and articulate Presidents in our history, a serious discussion about our identity seems too much to ask, much less expect.  Matters of fundamental import are just way beyond the pay grade of any political figure, regardless of party or ideology.

The problem is that they seem to be above everyone’s pay grade, that includes you and me.  It’s just not a conversation that we are having on any meaningful level, if at all.  Perhaps such talk is heard in the academy, but if so it’s a strictly private conversation conducted in whisper tones and shared with others only on a need-to-know basis, if that.  And it isn’t a matter of silence because there is probably more, or as much, spoken (or digital) noise today as at any time in history.   It is that our discourse and subject matter, regardless of who is engaged, tends to be largely parochial, if not outright self-serving and petty.  What does it mean to ME right at this very moment.  So if we ourselves aren’t having this conversation, how can we fault others?  In truth, much as we’d like to deny it, those disdained people measured in the polls mirror the very citizens who put them in office — both the voters and perhaps most especially the non-voters.  But again, that isn’t the point here.  This issue of identity isn’t partisan or even political.  It is a matter of the group’s — in our case Americans — collective human purpose and consequently condition.

It has been suggested that in the end it seems to matter little which individuals get elected in America or which party is in control.  They’re all the same.  I don’t really buy that broad and simplistic conclusion, but again that’s another conversation.  The sad fact is that on one important level — concerning the matter of identity — they are the same.  Who are we?  Let’s not talk about it.  Even Amos Oz isn’t really addressing transcendent fundamentals, not talking about that.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


In 1976 Alex Haley published Roots his landmark novel inspired by The Saga of [his] American Family.  For sure Haley was not the first writer to explore his roots and other portraits had been written about the lives of African Americans.  Haley admitted later to have incorporated some of that writing in his book, but he was making a statement.  All of us come from somewhere; we have a deep history without which we would likely not have come to this place or to who we are.  Focusing on his ancestry that way — giving a Black family the gravitas of a written biography — Haley was taking the civil rights struggle to a new and transcendent place.  In a sense, Barack Obama’s 1995 Dreams of my Father built on that foundation.  It said he too came from somewhere, a necessary grounding and a powerful credential for his political career to come.

The horrendous travail of the past weeks also has its roots and sometimes we forget what they are, how deep and how much past actions predestined this moment.  Democrats like to say the current economic climate is rooted in the years of Reagan excess and deregulation culminating in the infamous Bush tax cuts and unfunded wars.  I’ll stipulate to those roots.  Republicans have to live with their lineage, but let’s not pretend Democrats come to this moment without their own history or, more importantly, with clean hands.

We Democrats pride ourselves on the fact that, when he turned in the White House keys, Bill Clinton left the country in surplus.  So he did and so our self-congratulatory story line goes, almost with mythic proportions.  We accuse the GOP with squandering Clinton’s prudence and do so with much justification.  But we also suffer from selective memory.  Sadly, much of what we’ve experienced in these dreadful years can be traced directly to the policies and crucial decisions of the Clinton Administration.  Those good years led to a culture of excess in which the government may have experienced a fiscal surplus but many of its citizens were sinking deeper into debt, some on their way to inevitable insolvency.

Clinton was carried into office with the assertion that the economy under George Herbert Walker Bush was in deep trouble and with a promise to focus all his attention in righting the ship.  It’s the economy stupid.  Truth is the economy was already on its way toward recovery laying the foundation for the boom days from which Clinton (and we) happily benefited.  Attributing its success to his economic term, albeit in hindsight with more credit than was due, we bestowed virtually walk-on-water status to Bob Rubin and Larry Summers.  How could one argue with such success?  We were happy and so too was the business community, most especially Wall Street.  They had good reason.

Capping off what turned out to be Clinton’s too pro-business stance was the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the 1933 legislation that had successfully separated commercial banking from other financial businesses, particularly stock brokerages.  The purpose of Glass-Steagall was to once and for all break the back of speculation and inevitable conflicts of interest.  Without its 1999 repeal those mortgage-backed securities would probably never have been possible.  Let’s not even consider that Rubin, under whose stewardship it took place, went directly from government service into the employ of Citigroup whose very existence (a combination of Citibank and Travelers/Smith Barney) had been enabled by the legislation.  They had lobbied hardest and had gained most from the repeal.  Clinton himself would be profoundly rewarded.  A man who didn’t even own his own home until months before leaving public office, emerged wealthy a year later thanks to out-sized lecture fees paid mostly by banks and other business heavyweights.  So, too, has the Clinton Foundation been bankrolled by many of those who benefited from his policies.  It may do some excellent and commendable work, but that doesn’t change its roots.

The consequences of gutting Glass-Steagall were entirely predictable.  Just as President Obama has been saying in the last weeks about a crisis manufactured by Washington, the great recession, fueled by the house of cards collapse of the real estate market, was bestowed upon us by reckless policies, private and public.  Many of the critical missteps were bi-partisan in nature.  Hurray for that!  It isn’t only that Reagan or the Bushes failed us, it’s that our leaders including Bill Clinton failed us, and did so in a monstrously big way.  Where we are now reflects from where we came — from our sadly misbegotten roots.

The votes just taken in the House and Senate along with the President’s signature have left a bitter taste in our mouths.  Yes Democrats and Republicans signed on, but it would be better to describe their action as a survival Hail Mary (for themselves) rather than anything we can call bi-partisan.  Our house is deeply divided and we have no one to blame but ourselves.  This is not to give those who claim to lead a pass — none of them, repeat none of them, deserves it.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  To one degree or another the vast majority of us play along to get along. 

We game the system and in the end are gaming the country.  All of those predatory come-ons from banks and the like were (and still are) despicable, but we signed on.  Sure predators’ prey most and do best with the untutored, but many of those now in default should have known better.  And I don’t only mean in default on a mortgage, but default on our common responsibilities.  No demonstrations were held against our financial institutions, no sense of urgency about the kind of people we elected to office or whom many of them really represented.  We deplore how money buys our elections, but too many of us fail to use our no-cost right to vote.  In the end votes — the number of them cast — do count.  Deficits aren’t always enumerated in hard currency.

I’ve suggested several times here that what’s happened to us was determined by our roots, that consequences have been predictable.  But I’m no determinist, not by a long shot.  I do think that somehow we will get out of our current mess; at least I hope that to be the case.  But to do so will require that we stop pointing fingers and begin to take some responsibility.  Did Obama give away the store?  Should he have invoked the 14th?  Should he have been more vocal and assertive?  Should he be the man we had in our dreams rather than the person he probably always has been? 

Perhaps all those things, but then again should we have done things differently ourselves.  Did we in fact inflict upon ourselves that costly 2010 enthusiasm gap, premised to some large degree on disappointments in our own dreams, misconceptions and unrealistic hopes?  Is 2011 the result of a self-inflicted wound?  Say what you will, but it is we who rendered our President weaker than he could have been, made it harder for him to deliver.  Some good friends think I am not hard enough on Obama and that probably is true.  Like many others I had incredible hopes for him thinking that he was the solution to all our problems.  He would instantly get us out of Iraq, refuse to escalate in Afghanistan and perhaps most of all wave his wand and make our economy better.  Has he done less in these areas that he might?  Probably, but only probably.  Was a less than perfect, some say imperfect, healthcare bill worth doing or was it a fools errand, an unnecessary distraction from the economy stupid?  Wish I could say for certain.  The point is that all these things are more complicated than we’d hope, and that talking, including blogging and campaigning, is far easier than executing and governing.  That is hardly news.

When talking of roots, it’s probably fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. as much as Barack Obama, Sr. was integral to what took Barack, Jr. to the White House.  These were both men of great ideals, especially Martin.  I am among the privileged to have crossed his path and shared his fight.  The thing about King was that he was free to speak his mind, to strive for the ideal.  That doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a practical side and be assured he made some compromises to accomplish his goals.  But ultimately, Martin King in the White House or even the State House would have been someone totally different, and we would have been sorely disappointed.  Governance in a democracy just isn’t ideal and it certainly isn’t pure or pretty.  The streets have to be paved and the sewers cleaned of our waste.

Our power as citizens is sorely limited, but we are not impotent.  If we want Obama to do better, the country to do better, he will need a lot of help.  We’ll also have to think seriously about from where we came.  That’s not from where we wish we had come or from some fairy tale.  Let’s be honest about our own resumes, our own roots, and perhaps we’ll better understand the work that has yet to be done.  We’ll soon have a chance to do our part and hopefully to make a difference.  Yes we should hold his feet to the fire, but only if we hold our own to it as well. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

A third party taking us over the edge.

Perhaps only future historians will be able to fully assess why voters cast their lot with Tea Party candidates in 2010, effectively changing the dynamic of American political life. As we have witnessed in the last few weeks, it was so much more than Republicans retaking the House.  By the way, all of this was set in motion by a small geographically contained minority.  A mere 17% of the eligible participated in the primaries that ultimately determined the general election outcome.  Don’t ever say getting out to vote isn’t important. Whether or not these new folks have staying power remains an open question, but for the moment it doesn’t much matter. 

Again it may be too early to understand why this happened and what it means.  That said, I’d venture that one way to look at the Teas is as a stealth third party.  It’s true that their ascendency came through the established primary process, but that may have been more opportunistic than out of any special loyalty to Republicanism.  It was an expedient and quick way to power.  Just consider how they have functioned once in office, especially how unresponsive they are to old guard GOP leadership.  They have shown themselves eager to diss norms of legislative governance — norms established by generations of both Republicans and Democrats.  And, at this point, they steadfastly cling to their differentiating Tea Party identity.

Whether Teas are a stealth third party or just old-fashioned insurgents pursuing a palace coup, the class of 2010 has turned the GOP (and one could argue the country) on its head.  The Reagan-Bush party known for its discipline and ability (unlike Democrats) to stay consistently on message now seems in disarray.  The Teas go along only when it suits their agenda and ideology, is in their self-interest.  Whatever the future may bring, at this point they sure act like a party within a party.  And it’s one far to the right even of the Republicanism of the W years, dangerously close to the edge.

So the rise of Michele Bachmann should come as no surprise.  More than her presumptive rival Sarah Palin, she represents Teas who come not from the frontier but mostly from America’s traditionally conservative Midwest and Southern heartland.  What’s lost in the current news cycle is that the Tea’s have much more in mind than budgets and fiscal responsibility.  For one, there is immigration some how conflated with fear of the Other (think Arizona and Birthers).  Then too, many among them want to restore the essentially fundamentalist religious ideology that seemed to recede with Bush’s exit from the White House.  No one (see NY Times July 16, For Bachmann, Gay Rights Stand Reflects Mix of Issues and Faith) is a more suited standard bearer for these multiple causes than the lady from Minnesota.

I happened to be thinking about the religious side of the Tea Party just at the moment when news broke of Anders Behring Breivik’s murderous rampage in a usually peaceful Norway.  What caught my attention was his being identified by that country’s press as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian.  Since September 11, 2001, we’ve become accustomed (conveniently so) to equating religious based violence with Muslim fundamentalism.  Even with Oslo, much like Oklahoma City, early reports assumed Islamists had carried out the bombing.  That’s a tribute to an Islamophobia that now pervades much of the West and especially in Europe.  In fact, the potential for going over the edge has little to do with one religion or another, but with fundamentalism of any ilk.  And in the case of Breivik, whose writings suggest resurrecting the Christian-Muslim holy war, that fundamentalism may also include rightist political ideology.   Breivik, seen in a larger context, reflects a disturbing swing toward the extreme right in many places, our own country included.  Among others, this rightist trend manifests itself in growing Xenophobia especially evident across Europe where it has extended to traditionally progressive countries like Denmark.  It constitutes an eerie déjà vu that echoes Europe’s dark past when fascism took hold with disastrous results.  What should further raise a red flag for all of us is that sharp turn to the right was also born out of harsh economic times.  History can repeat itself.

I’m certainly not suggesting that Michelle Bachmann or the Tea Party either advocate or intend violence.  Nonetheless, both in rhetoric and in action they are clearly putting additional logs on an already hot fire.  That can have unintended consequences, ones that even they may not wish.  We continue to suffer high unemployment, a sputtering recovery and an ever-growing disparity between the very rich and everyone else.  The seeds have been sown and the ground made fertile right here for the kind of at-the-edge rightist politics that she and they represent. 

Those to the left of the Teas (and I’m including a wide swath of the body politic) seem both flummoxed and out maneuvered.  President Obama may head that list for obvious reasons but it includes the likes of Mitch McConnell who, in this new environment, seems like a moderate — perhaps not in fact, but you get the point.  I would argue that one of the things working against the President and everyone else is the misguided idea (reinforced by the media) that they are grown-ups while the Teas are infantile.  Nonsense.  To take that view is to miss the point of what’s happening and more self-destructively to underestimate the opponent — the kiss of death in any conflict.

The Teas are adults with a clear and perhaps even revolutionary agenda.  Their vision of America is different and, in my view, dreadfully wrong, if not dangerous. It’s one that can potentially undermine much or all of that we cherish, not the least of which is a nation and cares for those in need and welcomingly opens its doors to immigrants.  The irony is that there are powerful and contrary forces at work these days, especially among the young, whose minds and hearts are more open than perhaps any preceding generation.  That’s encouraging, but open minds and hearts won’t be enough in this high stakes game.