In the past century, the 1900s, two major changes occurred in the United States — the improvement in living standards for working people and the growing inclusiveness for minorities, principally blacks.
In both cases, the nation was better for those changes. In the first incidence, a strong middle class was developed putting money into the hands of ordinary workers and in the second millions of Americans found opportunities that had been denied them (although we know many still are striving for those opportunities).
Also, both changes came about mainly because the people pushed for them through mass movements. In the 1930s, it was the workers who realized that only through collective action could they have an impact on the policies of America; they realized unions were the only way to effectively gain their share of the pie, and once unions organized, the entire nation thrived up until 1981, and the election of Ronald Reagan began the decline of the middle class. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the civil rights movement when masses of people rallied behind the cause and the courageous actions of individuals like Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott and the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins.
If the nation had looked to its leaders to effect these changes, it would never have happened. Most in leadership oppose change and those who support it are often too timid to push for it. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not necessarily enthusiastic at first to embrace passing landmark legislation that gave working people greater rights to organize unions, but eventually pushed for it, since collective bargaining promised labor peace in response to strikes and riots of those years. And, in the case of civil rights, the mass demonstrations drew national attention (and horrendous reactions like the dogs and fire hoses that Bull O’Connor sent against demonstrators) which slowly dramatized the rightness of the cause of equal rights. John F. Kennedy spoke eloquently about civil rights but history tells us he was timid about pushing the political establishment toward action (only his tragic assassination and the realism of Lyndon B. Johnson helped propel the nation to pass both the landmark Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s).
Today, the prospect of change is coming from the Tea Party, and the change this group offers is frightening.
Yet, the Tea Party has been popularized by a press mesmerized by the outlandish behavior of some of the tea partiers. The press has fallen completely for the belief that it is a “people’s movement,” rarely mentioning that its birth and growth would not have been possible without the guidance of old Republican warhorses like Dick Armey and the fat bankrolls of corporate giants like the Koch brothers.
The Tea Party, sad to say, is onto something here. It has indeed drawn in tens of thousands of frustrated Americans, many of whom sincerely believe the nation has lost its way. It’s easy to see why people turn to it in hopes of improving their lives, since many have faced loss of incomes, homes and even lifetime savings.
But, is it a true “people’s party?” Look at who is NOT at the Tea Party rallies: obviously, the minorities are not there (except for a handful of misguided souls); the poor are not there, nor are the unemployed, or the low-paid workers. Surveys have shown clearly the typical tea partier is white, above average income and with higher education levels.
What is really needed now is a counter “people’s movement,” a movement of working people, of people of color and of people in poverty (as recent reports show there now are plenty of people living in poverty, more than 14% of all Americans, the highest rate since 1986 when data was first collected).
The Tea Party members, if you belief the surveys of their participants, are not hurting as badly as those in poverty, the working poor and minorities. Yet, these same poverty-stricken and near poor folks are strangely subdued, or even silent. Why is that?
Have so many of us been bought off by the glitter of capitalism, the promise of huge flat screen TVs and the numbing effect of rightwing propaganda that we are too paralyzed to move? Have some of us, even in poverty, grown so obese that it’s difficult to move off the couch? Have so many lose hope by living in neighborhoods where gunshots outnumber the gleeful joys of children playing?
It’s time for a true People’s Movement, like that of workers in the 1930s and civil rights campaigners in the 1950s and 1960s, to take control of the national mind and move change in the right direction.
President Obama promised “change you can count on.” We think he was sincere in wanting positive change, but whether it was his own political caution or the steadfast promise of Republicans to say “no” to everything, the fact is his Administration has offered only limited change in the right direction. What Barack Obama needs, more than anything, is the knowledge that the people truly want change, and not the backward-moving change promised by the Tea Party. That’s why it’s up to us to organize from among ourselves; no one higher up is going to help. That’s the lesson of history!