I attended my local Tea Party yesterday, and it clarified for me, well, nothing I didn't already know, or at least assume, or at least fear.
It was an unusually hot day in downtown San Francisco, and Justin Herman Plaza was swarming with hundreds of mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-accept-the-results-of-last-fall's-election-anymore wingnut faithful -- not the thousands that KSFO radio host and marquee speaker Brian Sussman would claim on the air a few hours later, but a robust gathering just the same, pumped up on rabble-rousing rhetoric, pimped out in coordinated red shirts and witty placards, and above all pissed off; their very palpable anger, lacking a living, breathing, stammering, backpedaling town hall-cornered Democratic legislator to focus on, floating instead amorphously around the open plaza, looking for an animating principle and finding it in the inevitable Republican focus here in these first days of the Obama Age: the word "NO."
NO to health care reform. NO to "big government." NO to "creeping socialism." NO to this President. NO to gay marriage. NO to new taxes. NO to cap and trade legislation. NO to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. NO to modernity...
Well, okay, maybe only half the crowd would still subscribe to those last two, but as one speaker after another traipsed on-stage and barked their frothing way through the faux-Gipper stations of the faux-libertarian cross, I wandered bewildered around the crowd's periphery, trying numbly to decipher just what exactly it is that everyone was so heated up about. The experience was, let us say, disheartening. You know this already, but it bears repeating: a lot of Americans simply perceive reality much differently than, um, other Americans do. Did you know, for instance, that:
Everyone who joins national health care will be issued a national I.D. card!
Federal bureaucrats will have perpetual access to our bank accounts!
not to mention that:
Obama's going to herd us all out of our private insurance plans!
Oh, 'herd us,' will he? you mutter under your breath, because by then you've lost your patina of reportorial detachment (which, to be honest, was pretty freaking fragile to begin with) and just start blatantly arguing back: Obama has said plain as day on numerous occasions that anyone who likes their current plan can stay in it as long as they want!
(Incredulous stare.) "You actually believe that?"
Seniors will all have to appear every five years before "death panels" who'll decide whether they live or die!
Come on, that's just a willfully conspiratorial misreading of that one Medicare provision for voluntary end of life counseling --
"Yes, you see?"
-- which they've already removed from the Senate bill anyway!
"Ha! Exactly! Thank you, Governor Palin!"
Because by then you're literally gasping for air and desperate to bolt out onto the Embarcadero, where you imagine a soul-cleansing fog might drift in off the Bay and erase your pained knowledge of the fact that so many sentient human beings actually believe that
Our health care will be rationed, like in England and Canada!
Yeah, great, except that both England and Canada spend less per capita on health care than we do and their citizens have higher life expectancy.
"No they don't."
Oh, yes they do.
"According to whom?"
The World Health Organization.
(Brief pause, then, with absolutist, pre-civil-war finality:) "You have your facts, I have mine."
I mean, come on, buddy -- nobody really "has" facts, do they? Facts exist in their own right, and we just tout them or shout them or flout them, in accordance with the dictates of our personal knowledge base and perceived ideological imperatives. "There was this guy with a sign that said 'No Government-Run Health Care,' and he had to be 75 years old," marveled one corporate type who'd wandered over on his lunch break. "I asked him if he was on Medicare and he said yes." Did you point out the contradiction? "Sure." And? "He just walked away."
Which was so not a surprise, the Medicare recipients who want nothing to do with government-run health care being one of the more amusing right-wing cliches of this long hot August. There were no doubt plenty of them yesterday among a crowd that was predominantly older, overwhelmingly white and, I'd wager, heavily evangelical, a combustive demographic that didn't exactly cotton to the gutsy girl who kept pacing around trying to yell "Health care for everyone!" loudly enough to drown out the repeated death threats and off-topic anti-abortion catcalls that greeted her homemade "Who Would Jesus Insure?" sign. Her question, in fact, was quite a bit more piquant than the ones I was asking. So I switched over.
If Jesus Christ returned to Earth, would he advocate free medical care for the poorest and sickest among us? "Yes, he would," said a pleasant, Jesus-placard-toting man named Dave Ward.
Wouldn't He have endorsed the public option if He'd seen fit to address health care issues specifically in the Sermon on the Mount? "Yes, I agree with that," said the lady with the 'Meet the New Face of Community Organizers' sign.
And, finally, "I think he would be for it," said Bay Area Patriot volunteer Gina White, making it three straight 'Yesses' in my survey of whether Tea Partiers are willing to acknowledge the philosophical contradiction that has marked their movement ever since Reagan seduced both Wall Street and the Bible Belt. "But let me just" -- she tried to continue, and when I rudely cut her off in order to launch into a lengthy condemnation of her conservative perfidy (yes, by then I'd completely lost it), she politely but firmly asked me to listen.
Which I did, and wound up talking at length with a smart, compassionate opponent of (come on, let's own the name already) Obamacare who was willing to embrace progressives' core moral argument for universal coverage while also questioning our specific strategy for achieving it and offering alternative insurance-reform suggestions that would probably require a few hours of diligent net-surfing in order to counter. All of which made me like Gina White in particular quite a lot and Bay Area Patriots in general maybe a teensy tiny little bit, but only further grayed out an essay that I'd imagined would be painted in stark black and white.
Which clarity is, still, for my money, clearly what's called for at this scary historical moment. Every night for the past few weeks I've been sacrificing a half hour of sleep to gulp down another few dozen pages of Rick Perlstein's brilliant Nixonland. There's nothing like a meticulous accounting of the brutal Vietnam-era cracking of our nation's Red/Blue fault line to put our present cultural circumstance in perspective. You think tempers are high in 2009? Try '68, dude. People were setting off bombs, burning down cities, riding around with shotguns looking for fellow citizens to murder. Forty years ago America really must have felt like it was coming apart at the seams. Instead we stitched ourselves up and moved on. As we will again. As we are already.
So, bottom line, let's pass a damn health care bill already. A real one, with a public option, or at least as close as Senators Baucus and Conrad will deign to permit the other three hundred million of us to to enjoy. No, the recalcitrant side of the aisle won't vote for it, and no, we shouldn't care. We should pass the best possible bill via reconciliation and ignore both Republicans' crocodile sobbing about Democratic unilateralism and tee-bagger invective about socialism this, Communism that, and whatever other detritus emerges from those poor bastards' collective post-President-Moron minority-party psychosis. We need to pass the bill and take our lumps if need be, let the fair-and-balanced pundits blather about liberal overreaching and the conservative comeback, even let the GOP pick up a few House seats in fall 2010 if it comes to that. Just please, please, let's pass the damn bill.
Then we'll sit back and watch. "We are being lied to!" yesterday's speakers yelled repeatedly. They're right, of course, but by whom and about what? Let's pass a good bill, pull up an easy chair, pop a cold one and enjoy the spectacle over the next few years as millions of fence-sitting independents suddenly realize that they and their kids have health insurance which they can't lose because of a job change or preexisting condition. How do you figure those politics will play out among swing voters in, say, Ohio and Florida in November 2012?
Yeah, that's what I think, too, which is why so many Republican leaders are calling the emerging bill, mangled by compromise though it will almost certainly be, the end of the world. They're right about that, too -- it's the end of their world, anyway. As for our world, it just turns. The times change, sometimes epochally and swiftly. FDR '32. Reagan '80. Obama Now. The birth pangs of a new age are often painful and bloody, but this latest American evolution, whose genesis we're collectively creating, will live and thrive. And over time, most of us, anyway, will see that it is good.
Michael Krantz is a writer and editor at Google. The views expressed on these pages are his alone and not those of his employer.