I was in Western Michigan last weekend and saw signs for the then upcoming primary election. Ted Schendel was running for US Congress under the Tea Party banner. Mr. Schendel's campaign signs were particularly eye catching, and led off with the phrase "Take America Back!" in very large type. Schendel is a county sheriff's department employee who writes on his website, interestingly enough, "Please help me take my handcuffs to Washington DC!" He wants to cut taxes, secure our borders, and kill terrorists. (His words, not mine).
Western Michigan is rural, isolated and suffers from high unemployment and few opportunities for its young people. I'm not surprised the Tea Party has found a resonant base there.
I've thought of the Tea Party before, of course, mostly with the reactive grimace of a deeply annoyed progressive, or with a Democrat's hope that they are weakening the Republican Party.
Eric Boehlert, writing in media Matters on August 5th "Memo to the media: The Tea Party Movement has collapsed" argues that the size and strength of the Tea Party movement has been widely overestimated both by adherents and frightened liberal observers. I hope he's right. But I think there is still something to be learned bout the psyche of extreme conservatives, and the emotional punch of the messages they both create and respond to.
So the phrase "Take America back" kept turning over in my mind, and I started to look at it from a psychoanalytic perspective. Psychoanalysts always peer at words closely -- it matters exactly what people say and how they say it. I wondered, Did Mr. Schendel mean to imply "Take America back TO..." or "Take America back FROM...?" Probably both.
I'll tackle "Take America back FROM..." first. From what? From the brink? From strangers? From people I (the Tea Party-er) don't understand and can't identify with? From black people, from those who look down on me, from those whose syntax confuses me (who also may be black)? Fear and xenophobia echo loudly from "Take America back from..." Take America back from the Other, the different, the new, the alien. The non-Christian, non-white, container of everything I fear and loathe. "Projection" is a useful psychoanalytic concept here. People have the tendency to offload aspects of themselves(or responsibility for these unwanted parts of the self) they cannot bear to own. Throughout history, groups have deposited their own unwanted human traits (weakness, aggression, selfishness, helplessness whatever) in the Other, the foreigner, the outsider, the different one. This lightens the psychic load. The Tea Party ideology, in addition to cut taxes, etc, is one that seems to hold that those outside are different and strange, and have all the bad stuff in them, and are responsible for all the bad feelings inside of me.
This interpretation is supported by an excerpt from a March 18 2010 Reuters story on the tea party movement:
Around 11pm local time on November 4, 2008, America's first black president-elect strode out onto a stage in Grant Park in downtown Chicago and told a cheering crowd of about 250,000 that "change has come to America."
Some 40 miles away in the suburb of Grayslake, local businesswoman Janelle Nagy sat up in bed watching Obama's victory speech in horror, her bedcovers tucked tightly under her chin.
"I told my husband how afraid I was for America," she said, her hands held close to her face as if still clutching a blanket like a scared child. "Obama said he wants to fundamentally change America. But I don't want to fundamentally change this country."
"I love America the way it is," added Nagy, now a leader of the Northern Illinois Patriots.
Mrs. Nagy obviously fears she is about to lose something precious to her.
What kind of progressive message could counter and neutralize that gut level fear that something or someone strange and "other" is taking something away from me? Nancy Pelosi got near it August 10th when celebrating the jobs vote allowing funding for teachers and policeman. She said that the Republicans say this is for special interests, but that's true only if your special interests are children and those who keep our communities safe. But her phrasing was still too cerebral and circuitous and thus itself suggestive of the cultural "other." We have to say, "This is good for your kids, and you will be safer in the streets and in your homes. The Republicans who opposed it obviously don't care about that." Every progressive measure and move must be directly and sharply and positively related to the depleted, frightened, helpless xenophobic American self. "This is good for you, today."
So how about "Take America Back TO..." To what? To the past when life (as I, the Tea Party member, imagine it) was simple, familiar, understandable? "Regression" is a fundamental psychoanalytic concept. It involves the human tendency to be pulled backward (especially when anxious) to fantasies and forms of childhood, or its substitute, the idealized world of the past. The regressive pull inside all of us makes us long for simpler days, the real or imagined comfort of parental care, lessened responsibility, and freedom from fear. Twinkies, vanilla ice cream, baseball, county fairs, small towns, simple cause and effect, life courses that are predictable and similar to those of previous generations. Don't all these regressive elements sound better than economic collapse, new economy, new health care plan, a global market, terrorism? People generally don't really want change, they want safety and predictability.
What kind of progressive message could address this need, the regressive pull to simpler, supposedly safer times and ways? Why not co-opt the Tea Party slogan? "Progressive ideas can take America back to a time of safety and security." It's true, why not say it?
Psychologist Drew Westen, in his book The Political Brain, demonstrated the emotional basis of political decision-making. In politics, people don't use their heads, they use their passions.
Linguist George Lakoff wrote in 2008 about the need for a powerful liberal language that would begin to compete with the brilliant conservative phraseology such as "death taxes," "family values," etc. We still haven't gotten it right. It's all in the words. Let's take America back, one sentence at a time.