Former ACORN president Bertha Lewis must have been in a foul mood last month. Once the queen bee of the community organizing left, Lewis had watched ACORN come crashing down around her, destroyed by two young college students with a video camera. Her eyes smoldering, Lewis took to the podium at a Democratic Socialists of America gathering and lit into the Tea Parties of late.
"This is not rhetoric or hyperbole -- this is real," she thundered. "This rise of this Tea Party so-called movement -- bowel movement in my estimation -- and this blatant uncovering and ripping off the mask of racism."
What is it about the Tea Parties that sends the left into paroxysms of rage? Lewis is hardly alone with such screeching verb-less statements. The entire left, from the scribes at the New Republic to the talking heads on MSNBC, have been driven mad by a handful of relatively peaceful demonstrators. Bill Clinton warned that the waving of Don't Tread on Me flags could lead like night into day to another Oklahoma City bombing, Harry Reid defied my spellchecker by declaring Tea Partiers to be "evilmongers," Keith Olbermann dedicated two interminable Special Comments to his indignant rage at the protesters, and Frank Rich dutifully spent week after week drawing parallels between the Tea Parties and racists of days gone by.
In fairness, there's been plenty of derision from conservatives directed at, say, anti-war demonstrators during the Bush years. But never before has an entire ideological establishment whipped itself into such a frenzy over a group of protesters. What's going on here?
The problem with the Tea Partiers is that they defy the narrative progressives have written for How the World Works. As the left sees it, America is divided between The People and The Corporations -- interchangeable with The Rich, The Powerful, Big Business, and Wall Street. The Corporations exist for the sole reason of persecuting The People and ensuring that The People don't receive their fair share. The only way to prevent The Corporations from laying waste to the entire country is for the government to act as a central repository for The People's faith and money, and use it to fight back against the corporate powers of darkness.
Therefore, Republicans oppose big government because they are in the service of The Corporations. Democrats support big government because they fight on behalf of The People. Cut, copied, and pasted into Ed Schultz's Teleprompter every night.
This remarkably simplistic narrative has been canonized wholesale by the entire progressive left. We've heard it referenced constantly during, for example, the speculation over Obama's coming Supreme Court pick, when progressives began demanding a nominee who would stand up for the powerless rather than the powerful (completely ignoring the Founders' intention to make the Supreme Court aristocratic). During the recession, progressives were outraged that Wall Street was somehow performing better than some place called Main Street. Al Gore's 2000 campaign slogan was "The People, Not the Powerful." Inconvenient facts -- Wall Street donates far more to Democrats than Republicans, for example -- are smothered by this all-consuming narrative.
The Tea Parties turned this entire worldview on its head. Democrats took up the cause of health care reform to strike a blow against ghastly health insurance companies on behalf of The People. It was to be another cut-and-dried case of average Americans demanding their due from the rich and powerful.
Instead, the only average Americans who showed up were angrily confronting their congressmen at town hall meetings and waving Gadsden flags in the streets of Washington. Polls showed the Democrats' approval numbers in freefall and independents becoming sympathetic with the Tea Parties. Suddenly, it seemed to the casual observer that The People were the Tea Party protesters and The Powerful were the PhRMA-allied Democratic managers in Washington working against public opinion. The entire progressive narrative collapsed.
A progressive dream -- thousands of Americans protesting in the streets -- had been turned against them. The left responded first by trying to prove that Tea Partiers weren't The People; they were astroturfers, paid agents of the insurance companies. When that didn't stick, progressives began throwing everything at the wall. The Tea Partiers were racists, Fox News drones, teabaggers, morons -- anything to drown out the truth that these were the same middle-class Americans that the left had been trying to marshal against the insurance companies.
It didn't work. The Democrats did manage to heave health care reform across the finish line, but they lost The People in the process. Worse, they cast themselves as elites indifferent to their constituents.
This is the central paradox of the left. Progressives are driven by class warfare against elites, but they themselves often are the elites. It's no coincidence that coastal urban areas vote Democrat en masse. The People of flyover country stubbornly cling to conservative values despite the fact that progressives desperately want to fight for them. This quandary was explored in detail in Thomas Frank's stridently condescending book What's the Matter with Kansas? in which the progressive Frank wonders why those damn Midwestern rubes keep voting against their own economic interests.
It's a problem that's confounded progressives since their halcyon days. In the early 1900s, urban reformers decided it was time for the federal government to start helping farmers more. But the farmers themselves resisted, clinging to their values of frontier individualism. One letter to a farm journal in 1904 commented, "The tendency and drift of public sentiment and all legislation is toward centralization and consolidation when it ought to be in the other direction, to distribute power and divide honors, and make the individual more responsible, instead of the township, the county, or the mass of the people."
The farmers weren't rising up against powerful interests; they weren't fitting into the progressive narrative. All this led progressive Kenyon Butterfield to scold, "Present-day living is so distinctively social, progress is so dependent upon social agencies, social development is so rapid, that if the farmer is to keep his status he must be fully in step with the rest of the army. He must secure the social view-point."
The left faces the same problem today. And once again, instead of trying to understand the Tea Parties and their libertarianism, progressives are exasperatedly lecturing The People on why it would behoove them to get in line.
Tellingly, progressives insisted that Obama's next initiative be sweeping Wall Street reform. They want the world to make sense again, and it only will if they're rallying public anger against The Corporations. But it may already be too late. The Tea Partiers lost the health care battle, but they won the war against the progressive agenda. The left's Theory of Everything has been refuted. It turns out The People are angry, but at all the wrong targets.
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