Frank Rich, in my opinion, is the most perceptive political writer in U.S. journalism today. So it’s more kudos to the colonel when Rich’s latest column, entitled “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” makes the same point as the colonel’s last post about the health care bill. Rich notes that the bill itself is a middle-of-the-road measure similar to what Mitt Romney legislated when governor of Massachusetts, and he compares the rightwing overreaction to the frenzy over the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
He writes that “…the health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964. … The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play.”
Rich tends to see the Tea Party movement as a political phenomenon that can be curbed by Republican leaders. But the movement’s sense of disenfranchisement doesn’t just stem from the political face of demographic changes in the country, as Rich suggests, but is fuelled by anger over real losses in people’s lives – of jobs, of value in people’s homes, of financial security – and Obama’s ambiguous stand on these issues leaves them confused and open to right-wing demagogy.
As an article in the same day’s NYT makes clear, Tea Party activists see no contradiction in demanding smaller government while at the same time drawing Social Security benefits and insisting that government does more to stem job losses and preserve Medicare. There’s a certain consistency to their thinking; they do have specific expectations of government. The article quotes Diana Reimer, 67, who says that governments “were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.” And Jeff McQueen, 50, who began organizing Tea Party groups after losing his job in auto parts sales, said: “Government is absolutely responsible [for losing his job], not because of what they did recently with the car companies, but what they’ve done since the 1980s. The government has allowed free trade and never set up any rules.”
They expected the state to maintain the conditions that allowed their houses to continually appreciate in value, and to enforce rules that would stop jobs being offshored. Now, the repercussions of the past thirty years of neoliberalism have reshaped the prospects for generations brought up to expect that government would safeguard their way of life. That social contract has been broken. Their existential reordering is that they will join the ranks of those not able to afford what they were told they could expect: a job, medical care, a rising standard of living, and a secure retirement.
Obama was able to mobilize a large part of the population, especially the young, with his abstract message of hope: it signified to many a shift towards a state which would support them against being ripped off by multi-mega corporations. That movement has been dissipated by his acceptance of bank bailouts and Pentagon budgets while living standards continue to drop. But the experience shows that it is not inevitable that the right will be able to monopolize the populist phenomenon, as Frank Rich seems to think with his evocation of Kristallnacht. That danger is there, but so is its alternative.
Remember, you read it here first!