Getting what I asked for — why am I not happy about it? A follow-up to The American public is organizing and getting involved! Are we happy now? (12 August 2009).
It’s about public protests by conservatives. Often considered unfair by liberals, baffled to find their own finely-tuned methods turned against them. Well worth reading by both liberals and conservatives.
It’s significance lies both in what he gets correct about the sources of the protest’s power — and his unwillingness to consider the great extent to which they represent a genuine wellspring of public anger. The latter is another example of the willful blindness displayed by Thomas Frank in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. To call the views of one’s opponents crazy and illegitimate neither makes them so or wins converts. Until the left realizes this simple truth, it probably will remain a minority in America.
We have never seen, at least in the modern history of the United States, a right-wing street-protest movement. Conservatives who oppose Roe v. Wademarch on Washington every January 22, the anniversary of that 1973 decision; but aside from that single issue and that single day, the American right over recent decades has, until this summer, carried out its organizing in a comparatively quiet fashion, via mimeograph machine and pamphlet and book and e-mail and text message, and left the streets to the left.
So we have something new in our political life—the summer’s apoplectic and bordering-on-violent town-hall meetings, and the large “9/12″ rally on Washington’s National Mall that drew tens of thousands of people to protest America’s descent into “socialism” (or “communism,” or, occasionally, “Nazism”). How extreme is this movement, and how seriously should we take it?
… What is not hypothetical is that the Tea Party movement has materialized, to those who don’t monitor conservative Web sites and media outlets, seemingly out of nowhere, with an intensity no one would have predicted three months ago (certainly the White House did not). It does not represent a majority of the country, or probably anything close to a majority. Perhaps, based on certain indicators—Sarah Palin’s popularity, George W. Bush’s at the very end, the percentages in polls that strongly disapprove of Obama’s leadership—we can conclude that its followers make up 25 or so percent of the electorate.
But we kid ourselves if we think they are not capable of broader impact. We’ve seen it already: the degree to which self-identified independent voters flipped on health care over the summer from support to opposition, in part because of the toxic town-hall protests, was astonishing.
… This conservative protest movement, though, has three powerful forces supporting it: bottomless amounts of corporate money; an ideologically dedicated press, radio, and cable television apparatus eager to tout its existence; and elected officials who are willing to embrace it publicly and whose votes in support of the movement’s positions can be absolutely relied upon. The 1981 marchers and all the left-leaning protest movements with which we’ve been familiar over the years—and that serve in our minds as the models for street protests and political rallies—have typically had none of this kind of support. For the foreseeable future, what we witnessed on September 12, and over the summer at the town-hall events, is likely to be a permanent feature of the political landscape.
About the author
Michael Tomasky is editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and American editor-at-large for The Guardian.
Other examples of liberals baffled by resurgent conservatives
The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus; Random House, 144 pages (2009) — For a brilliant analysis of (and reply to) Tanenhaus’ thinking, I recommend reading “Is conservatism dead?“, James Piereson, The New Criterion, September 2009.
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Other posts on the FM website about public protests:
- How to stage effective protests in the 21st century, 21 April 2009
- The American public is organizing and getting involved! Are we happy now?, 12 August 2009
Other posts on the FM website about the reforming America (the last 3 discuss the tea parties):
- Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
- Fixing America: shall we choose elections, revolt, or passivity?, 16 August 2008
- Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step, 17 August 2008
- Fixing America: the choices are elections, revolt, or passivity, 18 August 2008
- What happens next? Advice for the new President, part one., 17 October 2008
- What to do? Advice for the new President, part two., 18 October 2008
- Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
- Our ruling elites scamper and play while our world burns, 11 March 2009
- The first step on the road to America’s reform, 29 May 2009
- The weak link in America’s political regime, 16 September 2009