Health Care Reform is the New Gay Marriage

11/14/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm going to go out on a limb here. The Tea Baggers are not just a whole bunch of white racists, comments by Janeane Garofalo to the contrary.

I don't at all disagree that racism is a huge factor in all the outrage.  Garofalo's point, that if these people were really just concerned about spending they would have been protesting George W. Bush's tax cuts and spending, has merit. Just look at this photo over at Politico.

But I think there's a broader, existential fear here and that racism is but one element of it.  There are particularly American elements of this and others related to globalization.

Americans have long had an ambivalent relationship with government, going back to 1787 or even before.  We have always contested its very makeup and responsibilities. Not all the colonists wanted independence, then we had the Articles of Confederation. Our Constitution is as much the product of compromise as consensus. The Supreme Court arguably invented its capacity to exercise judicial review. The Civil War pitted South and North against each other and set a fault line that has yet to disappear. Desegregation pitted the Feds against States. The governor of Texas now openly speaks of secession. Today's battle over health care reform and "government takeover" clearly relates -- the Governor's remarks came at one of the now infamous Tea Parties.

Today, the Tea Bagger movement displays new specific fears laid over a pastiche of classic American preoccupations. The race issue in the health care reform debate is, I think, more than just a signal of the unfinished business of racial reconciliation and justice. It is more than a battle over the proper role of government. It's a signal about the broader challenge of preparing an entire country to live in a modern world that departs in significant ways from real and percieved traditions and forms of the status quo.

Our quintessential American troubles regarding race and government meet a world that now easily penetrates the comfort of our local communities.  Ironically, this permitted and incited conservative Christians, in reaction to the baudy 1960s, to organize via televangelists and direct-mail campaigns in the 1970s to launch Reagan into office, followed up by the two Bushes.  Barack Obama used tools that did the same thing -- using our Facebook pages, our email accounts, our Blackberries and iPhones his campaign got people together in peoples' homes all around the country, gave conference calls to supporters. 

Social issues seem to have functioned in much the same way. Gay marriage and our increasingly obvious interconnectedness present threats to traditions and ways of doing things that many of us, though not all of us, think should change. Who could have predicted the existential angst of those whose world seems so threatened by people of the same sex getting married? How could we explain that without recognizing some kind of fear finding its manifestation in an appeal to tradition? In that regard, health reform is the new gay marriage.

The Tea Baggers aren't just a rowdy mob of racists.  Their behavior, like that of Joe Wilson, can't simply be explained as racism, even though that's clearly a factor.