The political journalist David Sirota, solidly of the left, seems to make it a habit of being ahead of the curve. In 2006 it was his book Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government – and How We Take It Back – two years before things fell apart and we all chipped in, to the tune of seven hundred billion dollars we didn’t have, to save that very financial system, with people muttering that those financial guys, not the wimps we elected as our representatives, seemed to be the ones who were actually running the country, pretty much for their own benefit. Sirota got there first, or at least got there early.
And in 2008 it was The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington – a lot of on-the-ground reporting about militias and the burn-it-all-down crowd, but also reporting on gadflies like Barney Frank and Bernie Sanders, populists of a different sort. Something was up, something new – or a return to the populist movements that seem to come and go in America, somewhat new variations, with slightly different emphases, on an old theme. In an odd way Sirota was writing about the Tea Party movement a year or more before there was such a thing.
How did he do that?
Some guys are just lucky like that – lucky guessers – or they see the larger context of things and speak up. Study history, and think about it – the one without the other won’t do – and when you speak up you’ll be told you’re full of crap, that what is happening now is new, no one has ever seen anything like this before, and of course, the past can be no guide now. We were all told that for the eight years of the Bush administration – for the first time in our history we needed to wage preemptive war and not wait for threats that might one day develop, and for the first time in our history we needed to torture people (and everyone knew that was exactly what is was) – and we needed to wiretap everyone too. And of course, on economic matters, we needed to get rid of all the old regulations from the thirties – this wasn’t the thirties anymore. And industries could regulate themselves now – we’d learned they’d not do anything that would ruin things for themselves and thus for the rest of us – times had changed and people were smarter. The list went on and on.
But you wait a bit – grab some coffee, walk the dog – and then things fall out the way they always fall out, and you shrug and start on the next book.
But sometimes you so speak up again, as Sirota does in this brief column at salon.com on this whole business with folks chanting what you hear more and more – I Want My Country Back!
Sirota frames this as the sort of concise and cogent catchphrase that advertizing guys can come up with but the rest of us can’t ever manage. And it is hard work. We stumble around trying to find the right words, and never quite do, while Madison Avenue guys spend weeks in meetings and with focus groups and with psychologists, just to find the few words that sum up exactly what is necessary to move the product – Just Do it – Have it Your Way. And they pull it off. You need something succinctly expressive and manipulative at the same time.
Of course part of the secret to that is in knowing your audience. In this case, that would be angry men – “specifically, the Tea Party crowd that is, according to new polls, more wealthy, more white, more male, more Republican and more motivated by racial resentment than the general population.” And for them this will do – “In just five words, it perfectly captures the era’s conservative backlash.”
And Sirota breaks it down:
“I Want” – Humanity’s most atavistic exclamation of selfishness – and thus the appropriate introduction for a Tea Party motto – this caveman grunt may end up being the epitaph on the nation’s tombstone. America once flourished by valuing what “we” – as in We the People – need (food, shelter, infrastructure, etc.). Conversely, today’s America teeters, thanks to a Reagan-infused zeitgeist that reoriented us to worshiping whatever I the Person wants. High-income tax breaks, smog-belching SUVs, cavernous McMansions carved into pristine wilderness – it doesn’t matter how frivolous the individual craving or how detached it is from necessity. What matters is that the “I” now assumes an entitled right to any desire irrespective of its affront to the allegedly Marxist “we.”
There you have the basic conflict. It is what-I-want versus what-we-need. The two sides are talking past each other. Do you think the Lakers will win tonight? Yes, my car may need new tires. What?
But there’s more:
“My Country” – In his quintessentially American ditty, Woody Guthrie said, “This land was made for you and me.” It made sense. In a democracy, the country is We the People’s – that is, everybody’s. If, over time, our diversifying complexion and changing attitudes create political shifts, that’s okay – because it’s not “my country” or “your country”, it’s all of ours. Apparently, though, this principle is no longer sacred. Following two elections that saw conservative ideology rejected, Tea Party activists have resorted to declaring that there can only be one kind of country – theirs.
There’s not much to say to that, but you may remember this bit of dialog from the 2006 movie, The Good Shepherd:
Let me ask you something… We Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?
The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.
It’s kind of like that, and then there’s the last word:
“Back” – To underscore feelings of grievance and nostalgia, the slogan ends with a word deliberately implying both theft and resurrection. In Tea Party mythology, “back” means taking back a political system that was supposedly pilfered (even though it was taken via legitimate elections) and then going back to a time that seems ideal. As one Tea Party leader told the New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”
To the Tea Party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the Tea Party – read: minorities – the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.
And Sirota notes that all five words together shows real marketing virtuosity:
A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.
And of course the trouble is that as a larger political ideology this particular motto encourages some pretty nasty stuff – and it’s not even a political ideology. But then what did Just Do It have to do with shoes?
And course Sirota is not talking about hypothetical matters. The first Thursday in May is designated the official National Day of Prayer, by congressional decree, even if this year a new federal court ruling that said the government shouldn’t be in the business of setting aside an official prayer day. That will have to work its way up to the Supreme Court one day, but for now some are upset, and on Fox News Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin discussed their belief that “America is a Christian nation.” Palin said we should get back to that. She wants her country back:
Our Constitution, of course, essentially acknowledging that our unalienable rights don’t come from man; they come from God. So this document is set up to protect us from a government that would ever infringe upon our rights to have freedom of religion and to be able to express our faith freely.
At the Washington Monthly’s site Steve Benen points out just a few problems:
First, “inalienable” isn’t in the Constitution; it’s in the Declaration of Independence. Second, the Constitution makes literally no references to our rights “coming from God.” In fact, the Constitution doesn’t mention God, Christianity, the Ten Commandments, or Scripture at all. Palin doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about.
So she confused the document stating general intentions with the rule book. It happens. But she was only defending the practice of the federal government encouraging Americans to engage in worship, after all:
I think we should kind of keep this clean, keep it simple, go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant. They’re quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. It’s pretty simple.
It is? Benen doesn’t think so:
For one thing, if we take Palin’s advice and honor what the Founding Fathers thought, we wouldn’t have a National Day of Prayer. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison explicitly rejected state-sponsored prayer days. Palin has this backwards because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
For another, Palin thinks the framers “created law based on the God of the Bible and the Ten Commandments.” In other words, she seems to think America is a Christian theocracy. Given that the Constitution – you know, the basis of our government and laws – is entirely secular, perhaps the conspicuously unintelligent half-term governor can explain the basis for her patently ridiculous nonsense.
And Benen wonders what laws she is talking about finally returning to. There seem to be no American laws we once had – based on the Ten Commandments – that the founding fathers established and we foolishly abandoned:
Is it illegal in the United States to worship false gods? Or make graven images? Or to take the Lord’s name in vain? Are Americans legally required to honor a Sabbath? Or to honor our parents? Are we forbidden from wanting our neighbor’s stuff?
Put it this way: if Palin’s right – and the Founding Fathers based American law on the Ten Commandments – they were exceptionally bad at it.
But she wants her country back. It seems to be an imaginary country.
And Bob Cesca adds this:
I should point out that the Declaration didn’t just declare that all American men are created equal and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration stated that these human rights were endowed to all people – regardless of religion, race, nationality or ethnicity. The Palin’s of this world tend to conveniently forget these details when it comes to topics like immigration and war.
He’s just glad she didn’t become our vice president:
So not only was she incapable of accurately describing the role of the vice president – the job for which she was running – but she’s also incapable to telling the difference between two very different and distinct founding documents. Holy crap – imagine the smoke billowing from her ears if someone were to ask her about the Articles of Confederation. My guess is her answer would involve Jefferson Davis and secession.
And finally, if any wingnut can show me a document written by either James Madison or any other participant in the Constitutional Convention that indicates the borrowing of Christian dogma for use in the Constitution, I will retract all of this and, I don’t know, follow Sarah Palin on Twitter.
He’s safe. There’s nothing there, and two historians, Steve Fraser (Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace) and Joshua B. Freeman (City University of New York and currently completing a history of the United States since World War II as part of the Penguin series) suggest none of this should be a surprise, given the strange history of Tea Party populism:
On a winter’s day in Boston in 1773, a rally of thousands at Faneuil Hall to protest a new British colonial tax levied on tea turned into an iconic moment in the pre-history of the American Revolution. Some of the demonstrators – Sons of Liberty, they called themselves – left the hall and boarded the Dartmouth, a ship carrying tea, and dumped it overboard.
One of the oddest features of the Boston Tea Party, from which our current crop of Tea Party populists draw their inspiration, is that a number of those long-ago guerilla activists dressed up as Mohawk Indians, venting their anger by emitting Indian war cries, and carrying tomahawks to slice open the bags of tea. This masquerade captured a fundamental ambivalence that has characterized populist risings ever since. After all, if in late eighteenth century America, the Indian already functioned as a symbol of an oppressed people and so proved suitable for use by others who felt themselves put upon, it was also the case that the ancestors of those Boston patriots had managed to exterminate a goodly portion of the region’s Native American population in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizement.
This populism thing has always been strange. Don’t Tread on Me – that takes many forms:
Despite a recurring resistance to the impositions of powerful outside forces – anti-elitism has been axiomatic for all such insurgencies – populist movements have differed greatly on just what those forces were and what needed to be done to free people from their yoke. It’s worth noting, for instance, that an earlier invocation of the Boston Tea Party took place at a 1973 rally on a replica of the Dartmouth – a rally called to promote the impeachment of President Richard Nixon.
Someone is always pissed-off at something. Fraser and Freeman the problem is that the populist instinct has always “oscillated between a desire to transform, and so create a new order of things, and a desire to restore a yearned-for (or imagined) old order.” And it’s hard to reconcile those two things. And much history follows, from discussion of the Know-Nothings and how they evolved in the American Party to this:
Populism with a capital “P,” the great economic and political insurgency of the last third of the nineteenth century that blanketed rural America from the cotton South to the grain-growing Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, would bear its own distinctive ambivalence. The People’s Party indicted corporate and finance capitalism for destroying the livelihoods and lives of independent farmers and handicraftsmen. It also attacked big business for subverting the foundations of democracy by capturing all three branches of government and transforming them into coercive instruments of rule by a new plutocracy. Populists sometimes attributed what they termed an American “counterrevolution” to the conspiratorial plots of the “great Devil Fish of Wall Street,” suspected of colluding with Great Britain’s elite to undo the American Revolution.
The remedies proposed, however, were hardly those of Luddites. These instead anticipated many of the fundamental reforms of the next century, including government subsidies for farmers, the graduated income tax, direct election of the Senate, the eight-hour day, and even the public ownership of railroads and public utilities. A tragic movement of the dispossessed, the Populists yearned to restore a society of independent producers, a world without a proletariat and without corporate trusts. Yet they also envisioned something new and transformative, a “cooperative commonwealth” that would escape the barbaric competitiveness and exploitation of free market capitalism.
Sometimes populism is Left, and sometimes Right, and often mixed:
During the 1936 presidential campaign, in the midst of the Great Depression, three populist movements – Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” clubs, the Union for Social Justice formed by the charismatic “radio priest” Father Charles E. Coughlin, and Francis Townsend’s campaign for government pensions for the elderly – coalesced, albeit briefly and uneasily, to form the Union Party. It ran from the left against President Franklin Roosevelt, nominating as its presidential candidate North Dakota Congressman William Lemke, a one-time spokesman for radical farmers. (The vice-presidential candidate was a labor lawyer from Boston.)
The Union Party expressed a broad dissatisfaction with the failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal to relieve economic distress and injustice. Senator Long, the latest in a long line of Southern populist demagogues, had been decrying the power of land barons, “moneycrats,” and big oil since his days as Louisiana’s governor. His “Share Our Wealth” plan called for pensions and public education for all, as well as confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1 million, a minimum wage, and public works projects to give jobs to the unemployed. Townsend’s scheme was designed to solve unemployment and the penury of old age by offering monthly government pensions of $200, financed by taxes on business, to everyone over the age of 60. Coughlin, an early supporter of Roosevelt, trained his fire on finance capitalism, inveighing against its usurious, unchristian “parasitism.”
Obviously things have changed now:
Over the last half century populism has drifted steadily rightward, becoming ever more restorationist and ever less transformative, ever more anti-collectivist and ever less anti-capitalist. What were subordinate themes in the older style populism – religious orthodoxy, national chauvinism, phobic racism, and the politics of fear and paranoia – have come to the fore in our time.
They go on to discuss the Barry Goldwater and the George Wallace insurgencies of the sixties to show that.
Goldwater’s rebellious constituents were an oddly positioned band of rebels. Unlike the declining middling sorts attracted to the Union Party, they came mainly from a rising Sunbelt stratum, a new middle class significantly nourished by the mushrooming military-industrial complex: technicians and engineers, real-estate developers, middle managers, and mid-level entrepreneurs who resented the intrusion of Big Government while in fact being remarkably dependent on it. They could be described as reactionary modernists for whom liberalism had become the new communism. …
Think of Alabama Governor George Wallace as the other missing link between the economic populism of yesteryear and the cultural populism of the late twentieth century. He was all at once an anti-elitist, a populist, a racist, a chauvinist, and a tribune of the politics of revenge and resentment. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”: a line spoken at his inauguration as governor in 1963 that would be his signature defiance of the civil rights revolution and its alliance with the federal government. In no uncertain terms, it signaled the militant racism of his bed-rock supporters.
His appeal, however, ran far deeper than that. The whole tenor of his politicking involved a down-home defense of blue-collar America. Like Huey Long, he was sensitive to the economic predicament of his lower-class constituents. As governor he favored expanded state spending on education and public health, pay raises for school teachers, and free textbooks. When he ran for president as a third party candidate in 1968, he called for increases in social security and Medicare. As late as 1972, Wallace increased retirement pensions and unemployment compensation in Alabama.
That’s just a taste of what these two lay out (the essay is long and detailed) – but what’s going on now is the issue:
As a start, the Tea Party movement reminds us that the moral self-righteousness, sense of dispossession, anti-elitism, revanchist patriotism, racial purity, and “Don’t Tread on Me” militancy that were always at least a part of the populist admixture are alive and well. For all the fantastical paranoia that often accompanies such emotional stances, they speak to real experiences – for some, of economic anxiety, insecurity, and loss; for others, of deeper fears of personal, cultural, political, or even national decline and moral disorientation.
But something is missing:
Though outrage at the bank bailout did help propel the Tea Party explosion, anti-big-business sentiment is now a pale shadow of its former self, a muted sub-theme in the movement when compared to the Wallace moment, not to mention those of Huey Long or the Populists.
This is hardly surprising since, at least economically, capitalism has, according to recent surveys of Tea Party membership, served many of them reasonably well. Like Goldwater supporters of the 1960s, those who identify with the Tea Party movement are generally wealthier than the population as a whole, and more likely to be employed. They are also apparently better educated, so their fondness for Sarah Palin’s intellectual debilities may be more a case of resentment of bicoastal cultural snobbery than eye-popping ignorance.
So you get this:
Alongside an exalted rhetoric about threats to liberty lies a sour, narrow-minded defensiveness against any possible threat of income redistribution that might creep into the body politic… and so into their pockets. “Don’t Tread on Me,” once a rebel war cry, has morphed into: “I’ve got mine. Don’t dare tax it.” The state, not the corporation, is now the enemy of choice.
And thus Tea Party populism should also be thought of as a kind of identity politics of the right:
Almost entirely white, and disproportionately male and older, Tea Party advocates express a visceral anger at the cultural and, to some extent, political eclipse of an America in which people who looked and thought like them were dominant (an echo, in its own way, of the anguish of the Know-Nothings). A black President, a female Speaker of the House, and a gay head of the House Financial Services Committee are evidently almost too much to bear. Though the anti-immigration and Tea Party movements so far have remained largely distinct (even if with growing ties), they share an emotional grammar: the fear of displacement.
So it’s that the fear of displacement that dominates everything now, once again. Palin tells O’Reilly of a long ago America she invents, and it sounds familiar. And when Sirota parses the new Tea Party motto – I Want My Country Back – or writes his books – he’s not guessing. It’s not hard to stay ahead of the curve when see there is a curve.
Everything old is new again. And that’s a shame, or it’s just tiresome.