We don’t usually get into current-day politics here at the HP, but when big-ticket history is being made, we have to mention it. Right now, the United States is in the midst of a long, rolling series of major changes that will make this present day of ours as deeply studied and debated by historians as the run-up to the Civil War or the civil rights movement.
Right now, the health care bill that passed Congress this month is causing an almost inexplicable torrent of rage amongst a small portion of Americans. These are the small minority of very vocal people who always want to stop the American experiment of accepting and driving social change (see The Great American Experiment), a reactionary fraction who always believe the past was better than the present and far better than the ominous future the latest social change is going to unleash.
In these times, it’s good to be a historian, because you have the long view. You know that there have always been these reactionary groups, ranging from the inane to the harmful. The “Know-Nothings” or American Party in the 1830s and 40s terrorized Catholic Americans and won many political seats on a platform of stopping immigration from undesirable countries, eradicating Catholicism, and generally setting up a police state run by white Protestants. In the late 1800s, groups like the Immigration Restriction League and the Workingmen’s Party authorized terror against immigrants; WP leader Dennis Kearney led his men on a rampage through San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1877, destroying homes and businesses, to inaugurate his campaign against Chinese immigration. The state of California eventually passed several laws stripping Chinese immigrants of their civil rights.
In more recent history, the reaction of the fringe against the Civil Rights movement and the federal laws and Supreme Court rulings that championed equal rights for all races is fresher in our memory.
So when faced with the Tea Partiers and brick-throwing anti-health care fringe of 2010, we can defuse their seeming power by reminding ourselves, and others, that these groups come and go at moments of national crisis or change, they spew their hate and then after a decade or so they disappear. Temporarily, of course; there’s always the next fringe group to take over for them. But they remain fringe because of their illogic and their basis in hatred and fear.
A columnist at the New York Times presents a good summing up of the current situation, pointing out that the fringe has predicted doom and the death of America many times without accuracy. They are never right because they fail to take into account the fact that the majority of Americans are on board with the Experiment, with change and progress. The majority of Americans know, as we lay out in The Great American Experiment, that “America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.
“As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.
“Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.
But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible.”
Frank Rich agrees: “If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.”
But that won’t happen. You can’t fight demographics, and America’s population is changing and the result will be: America. Our population has always been changing, always been growing too fast, always been diluted with people from new regions and nations, and we have always kept on, struggling and fighting and eventually breaking through prejudice and habit to achieve new heights of civil rights and equality of opportunity. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re great.
So as you ponder the rage of the fringe, remember they are the fringe. The rest of us will keep on experimenting, like real Americans.