I was arrested in Washington DC in 1971 when we declared, “If the government doesn't stop the war the people will stop the government.” Our enemies were the ruling class, war, racism and sexism. 60,000 of us were gassed, 8,000 arrested. Forty-two years later, the government was shut down by a handful of rightwing Republicans backed by ruling class billionaires who want to stop the expansion of healthcare and food stamps for the poor, don't trust women and hate our first Black president.
The shut down was from sea to shining sea. National parks and marine sanctuaries. The Department of Labor and EPA had their “non-essential” workforce laid off. “Non-essential” is defined to include worker safety, food inspections, flu prevention, environmental protection. Extremism rules, the economy teeters and no good science goes unpunished. Power to the Plutocrats!
Still, I don’t buy the somewhat lazy punditry of the New York Times' Bill Keller comparing what radical dissenters of the 1960s and ‘70s did to what the Koch brothers and their .01 percent ilk are funding today. Yes, there is a similar “go for broke” rage, but our disdain of government was based on a million dead Vietnamese and tens of thousands of dead Americans, not its expanding inclusiveness.
Despite claims by Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover that we were tools of the old left, the Soviet Union and its Stalinist client states, in the vernacular of the times, we were “our own thing.” Tea party activists would also like to think of themselves as a powerful grassroots movement of patriots but their history and funding suggests it’s more astroturf than grassroots — more a tool than a rising wave.
Consider the Koch brothers-funded groups ‘Americans for Prosperity’ and ‘Freedomworks’ that helped pour the tea. Their family fortune is petroleum based, and one of the tenants of the Tea Party is that fossil fuel fired climate change is a hoax. It’s like author Upton Sinclair said during our last great economic downturn: “It’s hard to understand something when your salary (or backing) depends on your not understanding it.”
This is not to say the tea party’s elected representatives have not become something of a Frankenstein caucus, true believers who now threaten to crash the economy and Wall Street, holding “the full faith and credit” of the United States hostage to their hallucinatory demands. They are “all in” to kill a modest expansion of the social safety net under “Obamacare.”
If we jump the rails from history to literature one might suggest that our black president has become the tea party’s white whale. OK, let’s not jump that rail. Besides, the tea party is very insistent it's not racist. Today it’s considered bad form to be openly racist. (Illegal immigrants could be any color, as could Muslims.) Only now the right's complaint is they’re losing their religious freedom to be openly homophobic.
The new left was a movement that attempted to bring into reality America as we believed it could be: more equal, equitable and just. My sister and I once asked our father, a refugee and survivor of a massacre in his Ukrainian village when he was a boy, if he’d really supported the Vietnam War. “Of course not,” he replied. “That war was turning my children against the country that gave me refuge.” We told him we’d never hated our country — we hated our government. We were the generation of Chicago ‘68 and the LA Chicano Moratorium, the Panthers, Stonewall, Earth Day and Women’s Liberation. We achieved less than a revolution but more than most appreciate. If your daughter plays sports that she began in school under Title IX, you’re welcome.
In the mid-1970s I went to work with Jeremy Rifkin and others creating the People’s Bicentennial Commission. We had tens of thousands of people wearing tri-corner hats and carrying Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flags just like the tea party, but our slogans were “Send a Message to Wall Street,” and “Fight the Aristocracy of the Monied Corporations.” (Actually, that was Thomas Jefferson’s slogan, but we figured he wouldn’t mind our borrowing it.)
The tea party has a more reactionary vision, not of what our nation can become but of what America supposedly was and could be again (hence no Republican healthcare plan). But given present realities, even formerly middle class white folk can’t count on a return to prosperity. Today, America is a less racist but far more class based society than when I was a young radical. It’s more like when Emma Goldman was a young radical.
I’m not worried about the tea party, because I know what it is. What I worry about is, where’s Occupy Wall Street, the labor movement, the new environmentalists, progressive democrats, public servants, reasonable gun owners, immigration activists, democratic socialists and people who can do math and science? It’s time to buff up old time favorites like 'Power to the People!' and reclaim our government.
David Helvarg is an author and Executive Director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation group. These opinions do not necessarily reflect the expanding ocean constituency, nor can they be found in his newest book, “The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”