Monday, February 22, 2010

The March of the Know Nothings

by Joel Peskoff

It started with a summer health care town hall meeting when a senior citizen angrily stood up and shouted, “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” not appreciating the irony that Medicare is a run by the government. What’s fascinating is that factless ranting has morphed into a full blown movement.

Members can be seen on the news raving that President Obama is both a Socialist and a fascist, not knowing that the two are opposing ideologies. I’m sure none of the Tea Partiers heard of, let alone read, Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.” Blissfully ignorant of established economics, they call for repeating the policies of Hoover’s Depression enabling Administration – namely, balancing the budget during a deep recession. While running big deficits in the face of the worst economic dive in 80 years is actually the right thing to do, don’t tell them that, they don’t want to know.

The support columns of the Tea Party movement are unfocused anger. They’re angry that bankers got a better deal than they did (me too); they’re angry that there is high unemployment; they’re angry that the government spends a lot of money; and, who knows why they’re angry that someone actually wants to tackle health care costs which are bankrupting the nation. Of course, their solution is misguided. The Tea Partiers gravitate to the right-wing who, given the chance, would privatize their Social Security, eliminate their Medicare, eviscerate social programs that benefit them, eliminate bank regulation that protect their savings and export their jobs to foreign countries.

The movement’s discourse is appealing name-calling delivered by demagogues. Steven Millroy, who runs, said at the Tea Party convention, “President Obama is not a U.S. socialist. He's an international socialist. He envisions one world government. That's what his whole plan is.” Oh really, Steve? How did you arrive at that, because Obama likes Star Trek?

Former Republican Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo suggests that the country would be better off if we required “civics literacy tests” before people can vote. I wonder how that would have sat with Tancredo’s Italian-immigrant grandparents? As a boy, I lived in a mixed neighborhood inhabited by many Italian immigrant citizens who could barely speak English. My grandmother’s native language was Yiddish and could not read English. Yet, nobody thought they weren’t good enough to let vote.

Fortunately, we’ve been there and we’ve learned how to deal with the irrational and ignorant that advocate disastrous public policy. During the 1930s, many on the right denounced Franklin Roosevelt as a “Socialist” even though his family was wealthy blue-bloods. The same right-wing argued that America should not aid the British as they combated Nazi Germany. The right-wing was on the wrong side of history then, as it is now. Could we imagine for a second what the world would be like today if America had let Britain fall to the Nazis and allowed the Great Depression to continue unrestrained by the New Deal?

Revisionists claim that the New Deal didn’t work but that’s why they’re revisionists. The fact is that from 1929 to 1933, when Roosevelt took office, GDP had halved and private unemployment soared to 25%. Upon enacting the New Deal, unemployment dropped by half but since workers employed by the WPA, CCC and other government programs were not considered employed, using 1930s measures, the official figures are understated.

FDR recognized that there would always be 20-25% of the people who would never stop criticizing him. He dealt with them by ignoring and ridiculing their views, not allowing their viral views to infect his policies. In 1937, FDR did heed to critics and cut back the New Deal stimulus and it drove the country into recession.

President Obama is attacked by Republicans for everything, from hiring “czars” and trying terrorists in civilian courts, just as the previous president did. His wife is also attacked. This is not new. Roosevelt and his family were the brunt of relentless and continuous attacks by Republican leaders and their puppets in the media, who were just as much the soulless pricks as they are today.

One attack claimed that Roosevelt ordered a Navy destroyer to transport his dog, Fala. Roosevelt counterattacked with biting humor:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him--at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars--his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself--such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."--Sept. 23, 1944

My advice to clear-headed policymakers: ignore and ridicule the Tea Party crowd. You can’t argue with the irrational or the uninformed. You can’t reason with people who seriously think that the President of the United States wants to destroy America. Just because they are serious doesn’t mean you need to take them seriously. Their views should be mocked so that everyone else can see how out of the mainstream they are, and how rational you are.

Likewise, you can’t negotiate with a political party that wants you to accomplish nothing. Any concession will be greedily taken without reciprocation on their part. The only way to deal with that crowd is the steamroller approach.

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