The Tea Party is angry! Really, really angry. So we are told again and again by the media. According to the conventional wisdom, it's the story of the election, and likely the next one: those opposed to Obama are angry and have coalesced around the Tea Party. But like much conventional wisdom, it's wrong.
There's no doubt the Tea Partiers are angry. But what's missing from this narrative is the fact that everybody is angry.
As I discovered when I spoke at the Teamsters Women's Conference on Saturday, even people who love the president, and who would not dream of voting for anyone other than a Democrat, are angry.
Velma Hart, the African-American woman who was the first questioner at Monday's town hall meeting on CNBC, gave powerful expression to this anger. After identifying herself as a chief financial officer, a mother, a wife, and a military veteran, Hart said:
I'm one of your middle class Americans. And quite frankly, I'm exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for. And deeply disappointed with where we are right now. I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people and I'm waiting sir, I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet.... My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs and beans era of our lives, but, quite frankly, it's starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we're headed again, and, quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly. Is this my new reality?
It's a question tens of millions of Americans are asking themselves right now. And when they do, a mixture of dread and anger rises inside them.
And it's not hard to understand why. How can you look at what's happening in America and not become angry? Every time I look at the news, I get freshly angry. Poverty on the rise, and no end in sight for high unemployment and foreclosures.
As the president's chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee said last week, those numbers aren't going to change any time soon.
So no wonder it's not just Tea Partiers who are angry. And if we keep associating anger exclusively with the Tea Party, our public debate becomes a false choice between the status quo and an agenda that would, quite simply, destroy America.
As Jane Mayer showed in her must-read New Yorker profile on the billionaire Tea Party-backing Koch brothers, those behind the Tea Party have been pushing the same ideas for a long time now, but have cynically appropriated the legitimate anger in the country and steered it to serve their own ends. Are you angry? Well then, you're obviously on board for their program. Or so they would have you believe.
But, in fact, there is more than one way to channel anger. Yes, you can demonize and divide and scapegoat. You can play on people's economic fears by whipping up a deeply un-American campaign of hate against a religious minority. You can foment suspicion and more fear by -- as Newt Gingrich just did at the so-called Values Voters Summit -- calling for a "federal law that says sharia law cannot be recognized by any court in the United States." You can try to sever the pathways of empathy by implying, as Sharron Angle does, that those out of work are just lazy bums who would rather sit around and collect unemployment checks than look for work. "You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn't pay as much," she said. "We've put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry."
The northernmost Tea Party favorite, Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller, goes a step further and claims that unemployment benefits are actually unconstitutional.
So, sure, going all lizard-brain and playing on people's fear and anger and economic anxiety to divide them from one another is one way to go. But there's no reason that, as the media seems to assume, this has to be the only logical outgrowth of anger. There is, in fact, another path to take. Anger can be harnessed and redirected -- the energy behind it used to connect, to reach out, to take action, to make life better both for your family and for others who need help.
These days, we mostly talk about our shortages -- a shortage of jobs, a shortage of revenues (hence our growing deficit and mounting debt). But we also have a surplus of energy, skills, and -- for those unemployed or underemployed -- a surplus of time.
What most took me by surprise during the researching of my book -- and now as I'm traveling around the country -- is the extraordinary creativity being brought to bear in communities all around the country on the problems facing America.
For instance, there is Seth Reams of Portland, Oregon whom I write about in Third World America. After losing his job as a concierge in December 2008, and submitting over 300 job applications to no avail, he began to feel as if he wasn't a member of society anymore. So he and his girlfriend Michelle King decided to take matters into their own hands and started an organization called We've Got Time to Help. It's an online meeting house that matches up people who have time on their hands (many of whom, like Reams, have been laid-off) with local needs in the community. So far they've helped out by building community gardens, repairing cars for those who can't afford a mechanic, building a wheelchair ramp, helping people who move from their homes, etc, etc. Instead of using anger to drive immigrants out, they've harnessed that energy to teach immigrants to drive.
Then there is lawyer Cheryl Jacobs, who along with her work as a torts lawyer at a big firm had been doing pro bono work as part of the highly successful Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program in Philadelphia that helps homeowners facing foreclosure through the legal process. After being laid-off, Jacobs took on even more foreclosure cases, eventually opening her own practice dedicated to helping people keep their homes.
"I charge my clients very little or nothing at all," she says. "They can't afford to pay me. If you can't afford your mortgage, you probably can't afford a lawyer." Although she is working harder and earning much less, she told HuffPost's Sara Yin that she's never felt happier. "When I know I've kept somebody in their home, the feeling is so amazing. I know how I'd feel if I was in danger of losing my home and someone helped me stay in it."
When I was in Detroit recently, I met Eric Jirgens, an interior designer with a lot fewer jobs than he used to have in his recession-ravaged city. So he's using his underutilized skills to transform a women's shelter into a beautiful and more welcoming space for the women who have to temporarily call it home. He's working with suppliers to get donations and bringing in other designers. The idea isn't to just spruce things up with a few donated rugs and chairs, but to really create a sense of warmth and safety and comfort.
In New York, noted designer Steven Gambrel, accustomed to decorating multimillion dollar homes on the Upper East Side and the Hamptons, has connected with Bob Kelty and New York's Coalition for the Homeless to develop an inexpensive how-to kit to help people who are having to start over, often due to foreclosure or the loss of a job. The idea of the kit is to allow them to quickly and easily establish a sense of home and personalize it, in what is likely a chaotic time in their lives. He's also starting a mentoring program to teach other designers around the country how to work with families in need.
So, as we are at this crossroads in our nation's history, Seth, Cheryl, Eric, and Steven -- and tens of thousands of others around the country -- are demonstrating another way to go.
We can choose connection rather than division. Understanding rather than fear. Reaching out rather than turning away. It's Hope 2.0. It's a widespread choice, yet it's getting a fraction of a fraction of the coverage the media is giving the Tea Party.
Our anger will either lead us to tap into our baser instincts or into the better angels of our nature. And nothing less than the future of our country rides on the decision.