Tea and Empathy: The Connection Between High Unemployment, Record Foreclosures, and Right Wing Rage

06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rage -- and talking about rage -- is all the rage these days.

Hot on the heels of an outbreak of threats against members of Congress, this week brought word that an Oklahoma Tea Party is planning to form an armed militia to help defend the state against the perceived encroachment of the federal government. This in a state where, 15 years ago next week, Timothy McVeigh's rage turned deadly.

Earlier this month, we learned that the FBI was investigating an anti-government extremist group that was sending letters to America's governors demanding they resign or be "removed." This followed the arrests of the Hutaree group, the radical Christian militia organization in Michigan that was plotting to kill police officers.

And with Tea Party members gathering for Tax Day protests across the country, we're getting a fresh wave of the ongoing debate about whether these groups are fueled by rage, racism, or class divisions. There is also talk about how much responsibility certain media outlets (such as Fox News and, uh, Fox News) and certain political figures (such as Sarah Palin, who urged her supporters to "reload," and Michele Bachmann, who said she wants her constituents "armed and dangerous") bear for inciting extremism with violent rhetoric.

The rising tide of anger is part of a disturbing trend. According to "Rage on the Right," a report released last month by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of so-called "Patriot" groups has skyrocketed in the last few years. In 2008, for example, there were 149 active Patriot groups -- in 2009, there were 512. The number of like-minded militia groups, meanwhile, went from 42 in 2008 to 127 in 2009. And "nativist extremist groups," which advocate vigilante action against undocumented workers, went from 173 in 2008 to 309 in 2009.

The report points to a significant difference between today's extremist groups and those from the 90s: a philosophical bond between these groups and parts of the Republican Party and the right wing media. "Unlike the 1990s," says the report, "the Patriot movement's central ideas are being promoted by people with large audiences, such as Fox News' Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann." This cross-pollination is all the more unsettling given that, in the 90s, the militia movement culminated with McVeigh blowing up the Murrah Federal Building.

While it's important that we take the threats and the rage seriously, it is just as important that we dig deeper by providing some historical context and understanding the underlying impact of economic distress. Despite the Dow 11,000 and a few scattered positive indicators, Americans are hurting. The real unemployment rate is still at 17 percent -- meaning over 26 million people are unemployed or underemployed. And the first three months of 2010 saw a record number of homes lost to foreclosure -- with over a million homes expected to be repossessed by the end of the year.

And in times of economic upheaval, when huge numbers of people are losing their jobs, losing their homes, and feeling powerless to do anything about it, it has always been the case that people look for scapegoats. We've seen this over and over again throughout America history.

In the 1880s, the post-Civil War Gilded Age came to an end with a severe economic crisis that culminated in the depression of 1893. But the search for scapegoats began early. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended immigration from China, after Chinese immigrants had just helped build the transcontinental railroad. Attacks on them by white mobs happened all over the country.

As one newspaperman put it:

Why permit an army of leprous, prosperity-sucking, progress-blasting Asiatics befoul our thoroughfares, degrade the city, repel immigration, drive out our people, break up our homes, take employment from our countrymen, corrupt the morals of our youth, establish opium joints, buy or steal the babe of poverty or slave, and taint with their brothels the lives of our young men?

An ancestor of Glenn Beck's?

Back then, as now, the agitation resulted in the formation of a loose political party. Called the People's Party or the Populists, the group's defining characteristics were outlined by historian Richard Hofstadter in "Populism: Nostalgic Agrarianism."

Central to the Populists was the idea of a Golden Age. "The utopia of the Populists was in the past, not the future," wrote Hofstadter. "The Populists looked backward with longing to the lost agrarian Eden." Sound familiar? The myth of an America that existed before we had all our problems has fueled many campaigns, and has been used not just by fringe candidates but also by mainstream ones like Ronald Reagan who, in 1980, waxed nostalgic about his youth, "when this country didn't even know it had a racial problem."

Hofstadter also pointed to the Populists' rigid us vs. them view of he world. It was the masses against the elites:

As opposed to the idea that society consists of a number of different and frequently clashing interests -- the social pluralism expressed, for instance, by Madison in the Federalist -- the Populists adhered...to a kind of social dualism: for all practical purposes only one simple division need be considered.

In other words, as Palin would put it, real Americans and everybody else.

Conspiracy theories were also rampant. According to Hofstadter, the Populists saw post-war American history as a "sustained conspiracy of the international money power." This obsession with issues of currency also played into a virulent anti-Semitism. Though this particular brand of bigotry was rarely acted upon at the time, "populist anti-Semitism does have its importance -- chiefly as a symptom of a certain ominous credulity in the Populist mind."

History shows that such ominous credulity becomes much more ominous in times of economic hardship. And it becomes even more ominous when politicians pander to it, rather than address the underlying causes. For example, while the shameful internment of Japanese citizens during World War II is well known, many Americans are unaware that during the Great Depression, the United States actually deported large numbers of American citizens of Mexican ancestry. The program was implemented by President Hoover's Secretary of Labor, William Doak.

As for anti-Semitism in the 30s, it wasn't just part of the angry rhetoric, it was acted upon. In 1935, for example, many shops owned by Jews in Harlem were destroyed by a mob of African Americans for whom the shopkeepers were simply the most available scapegoats. And, of course, the flames were fanned by the wildly popular, xenophobic and openly anti-Semitic Father Coughlin, whose radio show was, at one time, listened to by one in three Americans.

In 1969, Pete Hamill published "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class" in New York magazine. It reads like it could have been published yesterday. "In any conversation with working-class whites, you are struck by how the information explosion has hit them," he wrote. "Television has made an enormous impact on them, and because of the nature of that medium -- its preference for the politics of theatre, its seeming inability to ever explain what is happening behind the photographed image -- much of their understanding of what happens is superficial." And this was well before today's powerful information explosion.

"The working-class white man sees injustice and politicking everywhere in this town now," Hamill wrote, "with himself in the role of victim." He noted "an increasing lack of personal control over what happens to them." The result was a "growing talk of revolt." Hamill concluded: "if the stereotyped black man is becoming the working-class white man's enemy, the eventual enemy might be the democratic process itself."

A few years later, Reagan ran for president using as his bogeyman the "Chicago welfare queen." Today, 92 percent of Tea Partiers believe that the president is moving the country toward socialism -- an opinion shared by almost half the nation.

Combine the anxiety created by downward economic mobility with relentless media attacks and you get scapegoating run amok. Last month, a Harris poll showed that, among Republicans, 57 percent believe Obama is a Muslim, 38 percent believe he "is doing many of the things that Hitler did," and 24 percent believe that the president "may be the Anti-Christ."

Even if the poll's methodology was flawed, and the numbers are a fraction of these, this is insane. But, according to psychologist Michael Bader, paranoia is a natural response to the suffering brought on by economic hard times.

"Paranoid people are trying their best to make sense of and mitigate feelings of helplessness and worthlessness," Bader writes. "People can't tolerate feeling helpless and self-hating for very long. It's too painful, too demoralizing, and too frightening. They have to find an antidote. They have to make sense of it all in a way that restores their sense of meaning... their self-esteem, and their belief in the possibility of redemption."

To do so, they often create a narrative, "a set of beliefs about the way the world is and is supposed to be -- that helps make sense of chaos." Often this involves projecting blame onto others and the creation of an enemy to go after.

So, as we head into the mid-term elections, and get more and more disturbing reports of extremist behavior and more and more of the rhetoric of rage, let's keep in mind that the explanations that people give to pollsters and reporters are often themselves part of the reality they create to deal with their growing economic anxiety.

Yes, it's shameful that many politicians and media figures are going to fan the flames and deliberately try to turn this anxiety into scapegoating. But our leaders shouldn't lose sight of the need to address the root causes of the anger. Making sure that financial reform legislation actually ends up protecting Main Street instead of Wall Street would be a good start. So would another jobs bill. And the administration needs to put its foreclosure prevention program in high gear, before more underwater Americans lose their homes.

"The pretax incomes of the wealthy have soared since the late 1970s," wrote the New York Times' David Leonhardt, "while their tax rates have fallen more than rates for the middle class and poor." This is just one of the many statistics fueling the growing sense of unfairness.

So, at the same time that we need Beck, Palin, Bachmann, et al. to stop pouring gasoline on the crackling fires of discontent burning across America, our leaders need to do a lot more than they are to address the underlying causes of this discontent.