Canary in a Coal Mine

There are a lot of reasons to be angry about the rally Glenn Beck held at the Lincoln Memorial in August.

He appropriated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s image and message as his own, jettisoning King’s economic populism and commitment to justice for a narrow reading of King’s vision of a color-blind society.

He called for a return to a religious form of nationalism, one with dangerously fascist overtones and an implicit rejection of religious groups outside of his own, loose definition of American Christianity.

And he played on the fears of white America, calling for a return to an idyllic past, a restoration of what can only be read as a time before black presidents and the shifting demographic tide.

But in our anger, we should not lose sight of the motivation behind the ugliness at the core of the Beck phenomenon.

As with the white backlash in the 1960s, the Tea Party/Beck/Sarah Palin crowd is reacting to larger societal changes that leave them feeling lost and at sea. The comments from the crowd quoted by newspapers like the Washington Post read uncomfortably like those made during the late 1960s and 1970s, without the overt racism.

John Sawyers and Linda Adams flew in from Colorado because they were frustrated at the “ruling class,” according to the Post — at “the health-care bill they say few supported, at schools that no longer require that students say the Pledge of Allegiance, and at elected officials who run on one platform and govern on another.”

Most importantly, however, the pair made it clear that this is a backward-looking movement:

“We want our country to get back to its original roots,” Adams told the paper, making sure to add that “her ancestors were on the Mayflower and fought in the American Revolution.”

“It’s not anger,” Sawyers told the Post. “It’s more, ‘Guys, why are we going this way?’ It’s time for the silent majority to say it’s wrong.”

The silent majority — a phrase used by Richard Nixon to separate supporters of his plans in Vietnam from what he termed a vocal minority demanding defeat, a concept used by the GOP throughout the ’70s and ’80s to stoke the backlash fires against civil rights and social justice programs the white majority viewed as benefiting blacks. It was an ingenious phrase, one of the great coded messages in American politics. If blacks and Latinos were the minorities, then who might the “silent majority” be?

The Beck/Tea Party phenomenon, like the Nixon-era backlash and the conservative movement it spawned grew from a real sense of dislocation. The white working class was beginning to lose ground, the nation was engaged in a simmering, unwinnable war and minorities — in particular blacks and so-called limousine liberals — became convenient scapegoats.

The nation was changing demographically and culturally as a series of shocks roiled the economy and a class of Americans who had been taught to follow their leaders and who were now viewing the recent past through a roseate lens pushed back. It was a moment of harsh reaction that was the other side of the ’60s story — and offers a lens through which to view the Tea Party’s rise.

American in 2010 is facing more extreme demographic changes, thanks to immigration from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. The national economy cratered two years ago and has yet to recover. The nation is buried in debt, its infrastructure is crumbling and we are mired in two unwinnable wars.

The American public, as most polls have shown, views the nation as moving in the wrong direction — and by a wide margin. The Tea Party folks offer just the most extreme reaction to this downward spiral.

The problem is the party elected to run the legislative and executive branches has been far too timid in attending to address these problems. They gave us a stimulus, but it was far too small. They gave us a foreclosure-prevention program that was, again, too small. The health-care program, which has some good elements, is overly bureaucratic and too easily caricatured. And at every turn, they bowed to pressure from the right, leaving a vacuum of governance and a national malaise.

It is at times like these that groups like the Tea Party and hucksters like Beck rise to prominence. They are a legitimate reaction, a canary in the coalmine. If we don’t fix our economic woes, their influence will only grow and we will be in far more trouble than we can imagine.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010

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