We have it all backwards.
The tea party wasn’t a revolution. It was the most recent flare-up of a revolution that’s been killing America for 30 years.
The great right-wing upheaval that began, not uncoincidentally, in late January 2009 is merely the latest flare-up of a war to fundamentally unravel the very fabric that has made America great over the last 200+ years.
Go back to the time of the American Revolution and the creation of this amazing country, and recall that it was a direct product of the Enlightenment. Replacing mythology and tradition with science and thinking, this was a country founded on the notion that the people should govern themselves. At the time, this was as radical a notion as Marxism in the late 19th century. America was the first post-feudal country, no longer based on nobility, bloodlines, peerages, and royalty, but instead on liberty, social mobility, self-government, federalism, and limited and divided powers. At its foundation was an educated meritocracy. They didn’t attain power through accident of birth, but through excellence of deed and thought.
It was at its founding an imperfect country, and America has always been a work in progress. Many laws were changed and much blood was shed to expand basic liberties and freedoms to those who were not lucky enough to be included in the American dream at the country’s founding. The sins of slavery and segregation still poison the country to this day. Racism, nativism, and genocide were an inherent part of our Manifest Destiny. Many of the promises of liberty were merely theoretical for many people, for a long time.
Some now argue that the rights we hold so dear – codified in the first ten amendments to our Constitution – are inherent and God-given. They may indeed be, but I am wary of any such claims of sanctity, because oppressors – kings, dictators, and warlords all universally claim for themselves divine right. The whole point of the American Revolution was that it was we who control our own destinies and our freedoms are there for the taking, if we want them.
The industrial revolution, our westward expansion, and the first World War brought great changes. As people lived longer, as industries found new efficiencies, as a mostly rural population suddenly turned to the cities and transformed into a working class, we as a nation decided that it was a good idea to care for the old, to feed the needy, to help the helpless, to welcome immigrants, to protect workers and consumers from predatory behavior, and to otherwise ensure fair and equal treatment, but not equal results.
It was the post World War II era that brought about the predominance of the middle class – the ability for people to earn a decent wage for a day’s work, raise a family, build a house, buy a car, and have something that had previously only been reserved for the wealthy – leisure time. That period from 1945 – 1970 saw unprecedented economic, social, and political maturity and growth for this country.
The 70s brought about setbacks – a series of global economic, military, and political crises delivered deep blows to our prosperity, outlook, reputation, and self-image. If you think it’s bad now, then you don’t remember the 70s – never mind the 30s.
But in the 80s, we changed. The country changed. The Reagan Revolution was the precursor to what we’re dealing with today. Reagan did a great job restoring America’s self-image. We felt good about ourselves again. The Reagan economic stimulus had a heavy emphasis on tax cuts, introducing the supply side or “trickle down” theory of economics into action. The theory goes that you lower the tax and regulatory burden on high earners and businesses that supply our goods and services, the extra time and money they save will “trickle down” to the employees through more employment, higher wages, and more productivity; if you make the rich richer, the prosperity will spread down the ladder.
We have been clinging to that as gospel truth for 30 years, but it never came to pass. The rich already have all the money they need to spend. What we got was massive deficits and sovereign debt, because the government grew. The situation improved in the 90s, but after 9/11, we did it again. And it worked for a short time, until we decided to wage two simultaneous wars without end in Asia. The trillions of dollars we spent prosecuting those wars could have built so much in this country. But by late 2008, the entire global economic system was collapsing under the weight of its own lawless nonsense.
And so it was that a new administration came in to hit reset. In the past, as productivity went up, so did wages. But in the early 80s, something changed. Although productivity continues to increase, wages have stagnated; the middle class has made almost no progress. Protections for workers and consumers have been eroded. The tax cuts for the top earners has helped to make that segment of the population ever-richer, but the wealth never trickled down. Ever. It’s a completely discredited concept.
Why? Because without people like you and me to buy, say, an iPad or to shop at, say, Home Depot, those things fail. Without average families with disposable money to spend on things, the companies that make or sell those things fail. An argument can be credibly made that it isn’t the CEO of Apple or Home Depot who is a “job creator”, but the consumer. The middle class. The middle class substituted its stagnant wages and decreased spending power with cheap debt. The people who are still waiting for the wealth to trickle down, living paycheck to paycheck, getting shafted by bailed out big banks, being taken advantage of by usurious payday lenders, watching jobs migrate to China, going bankrupt when a family member gets sick and the insurance runs out.
We spent 30 years building an economic, social, and political system that is founded on protecting and comforting the extremely wealthy. Money has so poisoned our political system that our government institutions become paralyzed at the sight of the most uncontroversial matters. Money in politics is so unregulated, thanks to the Citizens United decision effectively legalizing outright bribery as “political speech”, that average people of all races, creeds, colors, and religions have become effectively disenfranchised.
One need look to the health care debate as evidence. Since World War 2, this country has been discussing and debating whether people should, as a matter of right, have access to quality, affordable healthcare. All one has to do to defeat any such proposal is accuse it of being communism or socialism. Yet like Medicare or Social Security, it wouldn’t be a handout, but something that people pay for – pay into. What our health insurance system had become by 2008 was unconscionable, unfair, and palpably untenable. Policy maximums arbitrarily cut sick people off and plunged families into destitution and bankruptcy. The “richest country in the world” funds children’s leukemia treatments with change cups at gas station check-outs. People who lost coverage for a time but had a pre-existing medical condition found themselves uninsurable. The variety of different private insurance plans, regulations, rules, and restrictions meant that physicians had to hire people just to process claims, and untold hours and money is lost every year on tasks having everything to do with penny-pinching, private, often for-profit bureaucracies, and little (if anything) to do with patient care.
Medicare was supposed to fix that; it did, for seniors. Hillarycare failed. Obamacare – now pilloried as a neo-Trotskiite fraud – was, in the 90s, the conservative alternative to Hillarycare. Every country in the western world has a different system, and not one of them is perfect. Obamacare sure isn’t perfect, either. But every single one of them is a dramatic improvement over what we had before.
The tea party revolution wasn’t what it appeared to be. If not at its founding, it quickly became a wholly-owned subsidiary of big money interests who wanted to maintain the supply-side status quo; who wanted to maintain the blind fetishization of wealth at the expense of average Americans. The tea party – conservative Americans resistant to Obama and his policies – played directly into the hands of big business, big lobbyists, and the shadow plutocracy that pushes a phony libertarian agenda to make sure that billionaires are free from income and estate taxes; a phony agenda that would maintain the sheen of “trickle down” without anything actually trickling down.
They’re working to create two Americas, with the tea party rolling along as its useful soldiers. By de-funding public education through “school choice”, the middle class and poor get one, inferior, set of school “choices”, while the very wealthy – some of whom pay only a fraction of what you and I pay for income taxes, because they earn not through work, but through capital gains – have their private schools subsidized by the middle class taxpayer. By maintaining the ridiculous health insurance status quo and eliminating the employer and individual mandates, CEOs can continue to pay themselves outrageous sums of money while employee wages and benefits stagnate – and they should be lucky their jobs aren’t in Shenzhen or Malaysia.
By creating a second-class America, people like the Koch Brothers and their network of wealthy Americans create for themselves a new, subsidized American aristocracy. You and I? We become worker drones, as protections are abolished, clean air and water protections are weakened to ineffective levels, the minimum age for workers is abolished so our kids can work cheaply, so that we are so beholden to the new aristocracy that we would be mad to oppose it. These new aristocrats have already poisoned our body politic with money and gifts, so you and I have no meaningful chance. Remember – these guys truly believe, with all their hearts, that 47% of Americans – vets, the elderly, schoolchildren – are just takers.
And they’re doing it in the shadows. In the dark, they hold their confabs and plot how to create their libertarian fantasy-world of controlling and keeping down the placated vassal class. It’s a country where a drunk teenager commits vehicular homicide four times over and gets zero jailtime. It’s a country where we fight each other over scraps from a pie we’ll never see. The billionaires running the tea party distract us with idiotic fights about guns. It’s a country where you and I are playing the game of life with a stick in the street while an entire separate population is playing in Yankee Stadium. We’ve created an inherently unfair, unequal system and we’re reaping unequal results. The American dream isn’t dead, but it’s being eroded, and the erosion is happening intentionally or recklessly, like the uncontrolled spill of unknown and unreported chemicals into the water source for 350,000 West Virginians. Like the unregulated, reckless poisoning of western New Yorkers by Tonawanda Coke.
I don’t want these guys to win. I want the tea party and progressives alike to see that the new plutocracy has pit us against each other to distract us from the larger issues. I want the very wealthy to play by the same rules as you and I when it comes to politics and taxation. I’m not saying everyone deserves to be a millionaire for no work – I’m saying that we all deserve to have the same opportunity on the same playing field. Will it take a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics? Sounds good to me. Will it take a complete, a-partisan re-think of how average Americans perceive problems and discuss solutions? Absolutely. Will it mean that people like the Koch brothers or George Soros will have to disclose how much money they spend on legalized bribery, and how much they raise – and from what sources – to assist them in that? Damn straight.
Because America isn’t – and never has been – a county that embraced the extremes. Communists and fascists have been marginalized in our society – never mainstreamed. America generally votes the center. Americans generally consider themselves to be in the center. Extreme candidates appeal to a party’s base, but they seldom win general elections.
I’m afraid we’re slipping back into a system that pre-dates even the enlightenment – a system that more closely resembles contemporary Russian and Chinese neo-fascism; nationalism and perpetual crisis used to confer a faux legitimacy on a system whereby all power is concentrated not with the people, but with the rich and politically powerful, who work in tandem to keep each other rich and politically powerful.
But we can’t do it if the system itself has ceased to function.