Sam Smith


When bad things happen, strange things happen:

– During a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, an American Indian named Wovoka claimed to have had a dream in which all his fellow native Americans were taken into the sky as the Earth opened up and swallowed all the whites upon it. The earth then returned to its natural state as a land where native Americans could live in peace.

According to Wovoka, to make this dream real, his native Americans were to follow these instructions: “When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. . . I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat.”

The ghost dance culture would sweep across the tribes of western America as the dancers were losing their last hold on their beloved lands.

– As military supplies poured into the Pacific Islands during World War II, local peoples reacted to the sudden change by developing “cargo cults” that offered magical explanations for the flow of imports. When the war ended, members of the cults built imitation landing strips and aircraft to attempt to recreate the former reality and restart the influx of goods.

– The early 20th century Maji Maji Rebellion in Africa was spurred by a medium who offered medicine he claimed would turn German colonials’ bullets into water.

– Sometimes the strange and the rational are strangely mixed as in America’s first Great Awakening, both an expression of excessive evangelicalism and of nascent equality that would help to lay the philosophical groundwork of the American revolution. Unlike the hierarchal assumptions of the Enlightenment, the Awakening taught that under God all were equal, a principle that even attracted Benjamin Franklin, though he didn’t care for the theology behind it.

– And sometimes the bad times produce not just the strange but the disastrous, as with the rise of Nazism.

Typically, the strange things were a reaction to events that had overwhelmed many and led them to seek solace in a simplistic and seemingly comfortably symbolic solution. Those reacting had not caused the problem; they had suffered and become disoriented as a result of them.

Nazism, for example, didn’t spring up as just an evil virus. It fed on:

– Unhappiness in the wake of World War I

– The collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, and a large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

– The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies. Sound at all familiar?

– The collapse of the country’s self image, falling from world leadership in education, industry, science, and literacy.

Like Ghost Cult dancers in the 19th century, World War II Pacific Islanders wondering where their cargo was, Africans beset by German colonialists, and Germans beset by economic and cultural decline, Americans today face an extraordinary assemblage of change, discouragement, challenges and uncertainties.

Add together the prospect of climate change, the erosion of democracy, the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, the decline of America’s position in the world, rapid changes in both technology and social values, and the collapse of conventional conservative and liberal politics and we’re lucky to have a reaction no stranger than that of the Tea Party movement.

When considering such developments it’s good to keep two things in mind:

– They are reactions and not the events or movements that caused the reactions.

– What happens as a result of these reactions usually depends more on how those controlling major events behave than how those responding to them do.

In other words – silly, misinformed, prejudiced or even criminal as they may be – members of the Tea Party movement are not responsible for the longest indefensible war in American history, the exploitation of the economy leading to the current collapse, the degradation of the environment, or the disintegration of a liberal movement once responsive to the needs of the average citizen.

And so it doesn’t help much to have those who contributed to the misdirection simply scold the discontented. Especially when a recent poll finds that 52% of Americans believe the average member of the Tea Party movement has a better understanding of the issues facing America today than the average member of Congress and 47% think that their own political views are closer to those of the average Tea Party member than to the views of the average member of Congress

And it doesn’t help to create a counter myth that blames the Tea Party for our problems, when, in fact, it was the extremist center that created them. Name one of our crises to which we were driven by either left or right. This is not to say trouble can’t come from the political edges but this time it was the centrist establishment – whose interest is more in power retention rather than in political policy – that started our present wars, degraded our environment, lost our jobs and chipped away at democracy and our freedoms.

This is not unusual in history. For example, one of the reasons members of the KKK wore hoods was because some of them were town officials, important businessmen or police officers. Today the extremist center doesn’t have to wear hoods; the media just covers for them.

There is no doubt, however, that it is all quite strange. Consider, for instance, that a Democratic president and Democratic Congress have recently passed a healthcare bill based in no small part on principles outlined in similar legislation offered by conservative Republican Robert Dole in 1994.

Yet recent polling finds that a large margin of Republicans think it’s terrible and a similar percentage of Democrats think its wonderful.

At such times, we shouldn’t be too surprised if some voters are acting a bit confused or crazy. Or feel that they’re losing control.

Although obviously encouraged by hypocrites, hate-mongers and know-nothings of the political right, the failure of liberal politics also bears substantial blame for the Tea Party rebellion.

Instead moving firmly to resolves our crises – as did their predecessors in the New Deal and Great Society – today’s liberals content themselves with being common scolds, attacking those who dare to express discomfort with the times. They reject, rather than redirect.

For example, one of the problems has been the over-centralization of a nonresponsive federal government. It’s not about how big government so much as where it is. But can we discuss openly (even perhaps with “civil discourse”) the status of the Tenth Amendment?

Apparently not without Chris Matthews comparing you to the bad guys of the pre-civil rights South. Or history professor Joseph Crespino writing in the History News Network: “Defending state sovereignty inevitably evokes memories of the civil rights era – when ‘states’ rights’ was the catchphrase of Southern segregationists.”

This is easily as stupid an argument as some of those of the Tea Party movement, the difference being that arguers are far better situated in America’s elite and so can get away with it without being held to account.

The contempt such voices have for rights specifically reserved for the states and the people under the Constitution only adds to the anger of others. I even feel some of it when a lawyer argues, for example, that my constitutional rights under several amendments as an individual are subservient to the commerce clause – because I still regard myself as something better than a truck.

Besides, it puts liberals out of sync with the rest of the country. A recent Rasmussen poll found that:

– Forty-three percent of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level.

– Nineteen percent say state government is better than the other two.

– Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

– And 25% aren’t sure.

– Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states.

From what I’ve seen as a journalist, this is pretty accurate. State and local government often works better than the federal government except in certain areas, the primary one being the redistribution of public funds for public purposes such as Social Security and Medicare.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution — having government carried out at the lowest practical level — dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson.

Conservative columnist William Safire wrote once that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” But modern liberals have lost touch even with the recent past, preferring to embrace centralized authority. It makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results — symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

Conservatives, on the other hand, often confuse the devolution of government with its destruction. Thus while the liberals are underachieving, the conservatives are undermining. In fact, a sensible and democratic devolution of power should be high on the American repair list.

The question must be repeatedly asked of new and present policies: how can these programs be brought closer to the supposed beneficiaries – the citizens? And how can government money go where it works best?

My own priorities for devolution would include giving back the public schools to their communities, giving back the National Guard to the governors, and allowing far more local and state discretion with stimulus funds.

Here are some other thoughts from another non-Tea Party member, former Democratic Senator Gary Hart:

“Let’s shift administration of domestic programs as much as possible to local communities, what Thomas Jefferson called elementary republics. And, since the 50 states have become targets since 9/11, let’s make the National Guard, local citizen-soldiers, the backbone of homeland security. . .So long as we are one nation and one national community, we will have a national government, governed by elected officials. But, if local citizens are willing to take the trouble to participate in local decisions, there is no reason in the world why they cannot administer national programs according to their own local needs. At the very least, it might help us move on from a stale big government/small government quarrel which is getting us nowhere. What all of us want is effective government. . . and citizens who care.”

The disparagement of state and local government by many liberals reflects not so much an ideological view as it does a form a snobbishness, which is to say they feel better qualified to run things than mere governors or city council members and, anyway, they don’t want to be stuck in Des Moines. The Obama crowd strongly projects this attitude.

But without power resting close to the people, where they feel they can influence it, the alienation towards government in general inevitably grows, whether expressed in anger or apathy.

This issue is one leading cause of the current political fracture. But even more important is economics. Who’s winning and who’s losing? Before getting too mad at someone else’s anger, it’s good to figure out where that person rests in the economic pyramid. It will affect, and often not in a strictly logical way, how they feel about other matters.

During the whole healthcare debate, however, economic issues were swept aside. The fear of many seniors that their policies would be hurt, the uncertainty about premium costs, and the personal expense of obeying the individual mandate were largely ignored, but almost certainly were hidden factors in the opposition.

Worse as a visible and convincing attempt to revive the economy, the stimulus package has been pathetic.

Obama and the Democrats have been tone deaf on this. And the media has hardly noticed.

This is not new. Since the Great Society, liberals have increasingly lost interest in what used to be their main reason for existence: doing the most for the most. During the 2008 campaign, for example, neither Obama nor Clinton could find much time to discuss such issues as foreclosures, jobs, pensions, interest rates and so forth.

Bloomberg reports that a recent survey found, “more than 90 percent of Tea Party backers said the federal government is trying to control too many aspects of private life and more decisions should be made at the state level. At the same time, 70 percent of those who sympathize with the Tea Party want a federal government that fosters job creation.”

It is this little understood inconsistency that crops up repeatedly in times of stress. Economic insecurity turns into hostility towards other things, including those of other ethnicities.

And the powerful play upon it. For example, it was the white elite in the South that convinced poorer whites that poor blacks were their true problem. And it has been the Republican elite in Washington who have egged the Tea Party on.

Those who perceive and deal with this anomaly are rare. Roosevelt, aided substantially by strong populist and socialist pressure, built a coalition around his programs that included many who would today be Tea Party members. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, amazing in so many ways, has never really gotten credit for how it furthered ethnic progress not just by civil rights legislation but by simultaneously improving the lives of many whites as well.

And one of the most extraordinary governors of modern times, Louisiana’s Earl Long, who gets virtually no notice for anything other than his bizarre behavior, had the South’s real dysfunction figured out long before most.

Long was not driven by noble ideology but by good politics. At a time when nothing close was happening elsewhere in the south – and seventeen years before the passage of the Voting Rights Act – he increased the number of black voters from 7,000 to over 100,000.

Was it an act of virtue? No, it was an act of political organizing of a sort no one else dared to do.

How did he get away with it?

His programs for blacks hired 2,000 new black teachers at salaries equal to whites, led to a 50% decrease in black illiteracy and a tenfold increase in funding of black colleges.

But that was just part of the story. At the heart were programs that helped everyone regardless of ethnicity: pushing for a school free lunch program, building highways, bridges and other public works, 14 new trade schools and 100 new public schools.

Robert Wilfred Franson recalls a story from AJ Liebling’s classic account, The Earl of Louisiana, in which Liebling, during a conversation with Long brings up the topic of prize fighting. Says Liebling: “I hear they’ve got a law here in Louisiana that a white boy can’t even box on the same card with colored boys.”.

“‘Yeah,’ said the Governor, ‘but dat kind of stuff is foolish. If dere’s enough money in it, dey’re bound to get together.'”

“Said Liebling, ‘I recognized the theory of an economic resolution of the race conflict.'”

This is a revealing story that is not told in the media nor in the history books. It ruffles the myth of good change being only the product of virtue and well-schooled intelligence. That someone as corrupt as Earl Long could do as much good defies everything the establishment stands for. And to suggest that who gets the money is key, is even worse.

Yet it happened again a decade or so later when two of the most corrupt men in Washington – LB Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr – got more good legislation passed in less time that at any moment in Americna history.

They understood that if you want to solve a major problem like ethnic relations, you also have to look at how the money is flowing. And if you want to get into trouble, as Obama has, just ignore this issue and spend more on your war supplemental than you do dealing to handle foreclosures.


But Obama and the Tea Party reflect a much larger problem. The system has broken down and nobody is doing much to fix it. Simply berating those who react in simplistic and misguided fashion doesn’t help things at all.

One real reason for our troubles is that the two major parties have morphed into political Mafia organizations with minimal interest in actual issues.

Further, beginning with Clinton, liberals cut a deal with the Democratic right not to cause too much trouble and have been living up to the bargain under two faux liberal presidents. To the extent they do raise any noise, it is through de facto ad agencies like Move On rather than with serious organizing. So far have liberals drifted from their former values that a recent poll finds 61% of them supporting full body scans at airports.

And the real left has become too weak to do anything much about it.

Thus, for Clinton and Obama, there was no pressure from the left and, as a result, no programs to reflect it.

Further, we cling to identities that no longer exist. Both liberals and conservatives have become two more demographic groups rather than political organizations.

Some time back I concocted a new political spectrum, based not on theory but on actual positions. On a number of issues Libertarians and Greens were closer than either were to the Democrats or Republicans.

This flies in the face with everything our politicians, media and academics tell us to think, but it is far more accurate.


So what do you do with such information?

One thing is to stop thinking so much about parties and more about issues.

This was dramatically demonstrated in a recent day-long meeting I attended, held by 36 activists – ranging from left to right – to discuss creating a crss-ideological antiwar, anti-empire coalition. The fact that we might not agree on taxation, education or agriculture didn’t matter. We were picking one issue and working on it.

Besides war and empire, here are other issues open to a similar new fusion politics:

– Civil liberties issues such as Real ID, the Patriot Act, and warrantless wiretapping.

– Devolution of government to the lowest practical level.

– Conservation of natural resources, once often a non- ideological issue.

– Ending the war on drugs

We need to get over the idea that joining with someone of another set of beliefs is wrong even though you agree on one or more things. Some of the most effective political organizing in America has been achieved by ignoring that rule. As I have sometimes put it, if you find a gun-toting, abortion-hating nun who’ll help you save the forest, put her on the committee.

One good reason for doing this is that the system doesn’t want you to. It wants us to all stay in our little political boxes and act according to code.

Ignoring this rule is one way to start to change the system.

Another way is to stop taking orders from the system and start writing orders for the system.

A case in point is campaign finances. Now that the Supreme Court has removed all dignity from this activity, we can no longer expect the law’s help.

But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. One way to help revive democracy in our country is to make sure that every organization, church, school, or club is run according to its principles.

A great model for such gatherings is the New England town meeting. These are a far cry from the undemocratic political talk fests pursued since by every cynical politician and every public affairs TV producer desperate for a program idea.

Ken Bresler, who wrote a primer on Massachusetts town meetings, noted that “one reason that Massachusetts colonists revolted against Great Britain was the British attempt to ban most town meetings except by permission. In 1774, British soldiers tried to stop a Salem town meeting in progress, but the citizens barred the door of their town house and continued to meet.”

New England town meetings were — and are — serious democratic business. Says John Gould in his book, Town Meeting, “Absolute independence characterizes town meeting. No one tells a Yankee how to vote, no one dictates, and only another Yankee can persuade.”

Another early American model for reaching democratic decisions comes from the Society of Friends. The Quakers have always conducted their business on the basis of consensus. While the concept seems risky and time-consuming to those who have not observed or participated in it, people all over the country are adapting consensus as they come to realize that majority voting is often insufficient — or even alienating — in our increasingly diverse communities. The beauty of consensus is that people feel better after reaching it, for in its wake is clear evidence that one has done the best possible under the circumstances.

Of course, that still leaves conventional politicians as rogue agents. One way to deal with this would be to bring together a community of citizens – including from churches, small businesses, non-profits and schools – and design campaign finance standards for all candidates. If they agree to observe these standards, they get to use the group’s seal of approval. Done right, and with enough consensus, it could dramatically change how finances were handled by candidates at both the local and state level.

As things work now, it’s a little like letting the criminal class – i.e. politicians – write the laws. We need to find new ways to encourage or embarrass them into doing better.

I think of this approach as a new fusion politics, politics that shakes up the current sick rules of politics by bringing people together in new ways to make better rules.

And there’s hope in it. To get a sense of this, I’ll close with a story from the North Carolina History Project abut some old fusion politics. It describes well what can happen when you start to change what everyone thinks are the inevitable rules:

||||| During the 1890s, a national phenomenon called Fusion politics united political parties. In some western states the Populist (or People’s Party) and the Democratic Party united, but in North Carolina the movement, spearheaded by agricultural leader Marion Butler, combined the Populist and Republican parties. In the presidential election of 1896, the Populist Party found itself ironically backing the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan at the national level, while joining forces with Republicans at the state level.

The term Fusion is somewhat misleading, for it implies a merger. The parties maintained separate executive committees and merely cooperated whenever feasible by forming joint electoral tickets. In the Tar Heel State, the Populist and Republican parties disagreed on certain national issues, such as the tariff, the gold standard, and silver coinage. The parties, however, agreed on many state issues, including education, voting rights, and restoring the charter of the Farmers’ Alliance. . .

Prior to 1894, Marion Butler, chairman of the state People’s Party and editor of The Caucasian, held secret meetings with black and white Republican leaders, including former black Congressman Henry P. Cheatham and future Governor Daniel L. Russell. Finally, Butler and other Populists met with Republicans. Among the Republicans present were silver leader John J. Mott and Congressman Richmond Pearson. They helped the two parties’ leadership reach a tentative agreement that divided political offices according to the parties’ electoral support in the General Assembly districts; a similar agreement was also made for U.S. House of Representative seats. The parties’ leadership also divided statewide offices to ensure that, for any office, either a Republican or Populist (not both) would run against a Democrat.

On August 1, 1894, the Populist Party convention endorsed a combined slate for state offices. On August 30, the Republican Party convention followed suit. The die was cast.

In the 1894 election, the Fusion alliance of Populists and Republicans swept the state. Fusionists won control of the legislature, elected several Congressmen, and secured some statewide offices. They immediately pursued a reform agenda. First, Fusionists elected Marion Butler to the U.S. Senate for a full six-year term and Republican Jeter C. Pritchard to the two-year vacancy created by the 1894 death of Senator Zebulon B. Vance. Second, they repealed the County Government Act of 1877 and restored county home-rule. Third, they set the legal interest rate at six-percent, increased funding for public education, and for state prisons and charitable institutions. Perhaps the greatest legislation of Fusionist rule was ensuring that all political parties were represented by election judges at the polls and requiring designated colors and party insignias on ballots so that the illiterate had a political voice. The reforms were highly successful and popular. The election law alone led to an increase of registered voters by over 80,000.

The Fusion agreement for the election of 1896 was not reached until September of that year. In November, the Fusion legislative victory was impressively larger than in 1894. The entire statewide slate of Fusionist administrative officers was elected. Republican Daniel L. Russell handily won election as governor.

For the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats were totally out of power. ||||

Sadly, old style fusion politics was so successful that the two major parties worked hard to get rid of it. Today, only eight states even allow it.

But nothing can stop issue by issue fusion except our timidity. It’s time to try some. And who knows? Maybe even some Tea Party members will join us.

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