Not Just Racism

The spectacle surrounding the passage of health reform legislation over the weekend disturbed many long-time observers of our political process.  Words like “nigger,” “faggot,” and “baby killer” were hurled at congressmen with uninhibited vehemence. (See “Tea Party Protesters Shout ‘Nigger’ and Spit on Lawmaker.”)

It’s no surprise, of course, that many harbor such sentiments, but to have them shouted out in public and on the steps of the Capital tells us that something unusual and important is going on.  Members of crowds whip each other up, to be sure, but they got undoubted support from the fact that not one Republican voted for the bill as well as from the sectarian convictions of the tea party movement.  A major split is developing in our body politic.

It recalls the divisions and passions over the Vietnam War forty years ago.  Then, the split among us was largely generational:  younger college students, empowered by affluence and the breakdown of traditional values, versus a parental generation preoccupied with national security and frightened of the new cultural forces they did not understand.  The protests over the war gave expression to the underlying tectonic shifts in our population.

But where does the emotional force behind today’s superheated conflicts come from?  What now is lying beneath the surface of our society that can account for this upsurge of rage?

My guess is that it is our growing economic inequality, exacerbated by the Great Recession.  For the last 20 years, it has been getting harder and harder for most middle class Americans to make ends meet, while, on the other hand, Wall Street bonuses and corporate salaries have skyrocketed.  The middle class took out mortgages, home equity loans, and ran up credit card debt to make up for their decreasing purchasing power, inflating the credit bubble that made more yet profits for the financial industry – until the whole thing collapsed.  In the meantime, our national wealth was massively redistributed in a way that has largely escaped our attention.

Big government is getting blamed, not entirely without reason, but the usual suspects are being attacked as well, for their perceived willingness to enact a liberal agenda or benefit from government programs.  Those who actually brought on our financial catastrophe are, as usual, spared.

This bears a resemblance to our politics as usual, of course, but ramped up in intensity and virulence.  The difference now is that so many more people are suffering and scared, vulnerable to the thought that the little they have left will be taken away.

What they don’t know they know is that underneath their rage lies fear.  And what they don’t know is where their rage could be more usefully directed.