James Fallows thinks that the United States will muddle through, despite our current worries. I tend to agree with that, and with his judgement that our government is not working at all well. What worries me is the state of our civil discourse. I’m not going to give in to the journalistic convention of false even-handedness and will just say it out. We have a group of people on the right who are willing to lie, misrepresent, and corrupt discourse for their own aims, which are not clear to me and seem to be purely destructive.
Fallows didn’t say much about that. His article focuses on different issues.
But he did say something that I think might bear the seeds of a clue to understanding the problem that I see.
One of those ingredients is exaggerated complaint by whichever group is out of political power—those who thought America should be spelled with a “k” under Nixon or Reagan, those who attend “tea bag” rallies against the Obama administration now.The Iraq war produced no antiwar movement of demonstrations in the streets of the type we saw in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Tea Party movement, however, has produced a continuing stretch of demonstrations. Comparing the Sixties demonstrations with the Tea Party demonstrations might yield some insight.
Exaggerated, yes. That is the nature of demonstrations. But that very exaggeration, and how it’s different in the two movements, might tell us something about today’s uncivil discourse. It’s not just about being out of political power, although that is part of it. I am going to try to locate the broad contrasts between the two groups to perhaps illuminate something about America today and will make broad generalizations, noting here only that exceptions exist to everything I’m going to say.
First, some similarities. Both movements are outside of, and impervious to, normal political discourse. Both are aimed at presidents; Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. Both are made up of many subgroups with varying degrees of organization. Both are suspected by their opponents of being manipulated by other forces, including some very extreme organizations, which may provide funding and other support. A part of the population does not participate in the demonstrations but is sympathetic to their goals. Both carry incidental behavior that alienates many in the general population; drugs and a self-destructive lifestyle in the Sixties demonstrators and racial prejudice in the Tea Partiers.
There are similarities and differences in the objectives of the two movements. For both, the purpose of any given demonstration may not be clear because of the differing goals of the subgroups, but each has an overarching theme. The Sixties demonstrators were protesting the Vietnam war and its accompanying draft. The Tea Partiers are protesting economic conditions, from the bailout of the banks to a high unemployment rate to a too-large national debt. In both, lifestyle issues accompany these themes. For the Sixties protesters, those issues had to do with equality for people of color and women, along with loosening prohibitions against sex and intoxicants. For the Tea Partiers, it is a reaction to the changes set loose in the sixties.
The Sixties protesters were of college age; most of the Tea Partiers are older. The differences in age parallel the difference in objectives. Young men did not want to be drafted into the military; money issues are more important for older people. Young people agitate for change on lifestyle issues; older people are less enthusiastic about change.
The relationship to media is different. The Sixties protests developed their own media, and Rolling Stone, for one, is still in existence today. The Tea Parties grow out of and have been encouraged by Fox News, and their ideas have long been promulgated by Rush Limbaugh and others.
Finally, there’s teh crazy. It took some time to arise in the Sixties protests, and there hasn’t been as much time for the Tea Parties. And it depends on who is opining: some would say that both have been manifestations of teh crazy from their beginnings. I’m thinking about people and ideas that are quite beyond the main themes of the protest: the Weathermen and Symbionese Liberation Army for the Sixties, along with the Yippies, who I was never quite sure whether they were serious or just a parody of the movement itself. There are bizarre components of the Tea Party movement, but none that are obviously dangerous.
Squeaky Fromme, a member of the Manson Family, tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford. We haven’t seen her equivalent from the Tea Partiers yet.
But the Sixties protesters had a stake in the future in a way that the Tea Partiers do not. It was a desire to be able to participate in that future that motivated many of them. The Tea Partiers want to return to an America that they think they’ve lost, in some cases to the values of the Sixties. The Sixties protests had an effect: many of their subordinate issues, particularly those relating to equality for women and minorities, are the stuff of today’s normal expectations. Some of those, the Tea Partiers would like to remove.
What effects will we see from the Tea Parties in forty years? Changes in social mores are hardly ever turned back; the most effective instances of this recently have been Iran’s Islamic Revolution and a return to more modest dress for women in other parts of Islam. There is likely to be a return to a more regulated financial sphere, a concern that reaches far beyond the Tea Parties. Formation of a third party is likely to hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats, but the Republicans themselves are the result of a revolt against the Whigs, so it could happen. And we can hope that teh crazy doesn’t take hold as it did in the Sixties.
[Photo credits: Sixties and Tea Party.]