It was about 11:30 a.m., and a speaker at the September 12 “Taxpayer March on Washington” announced that their crowd estimate was one and a half million people. I didn’t believe it, but I wanted to see for myself. I’m pretty good at crowd estimates after over 40 years of participating in and organizing big demonstrations.
As I circulated around and throughout the crowd for the next hour and a half, I heard someone say that CNN was giving a figure of 2 million. People were excited. Was this the beginning of the right-winger revolution?
That question remains to be answered—almost certainly it’s a “no”—but one thing is clear: there weren’t anywhere near 1 ½ or 2 million people at this coming together of the ideological super-rightists of the USA. When your crowd only goes from the West Capitol steps to 3rd St., 100 yards or so past the reflecting pool, not even on the mall, and with big holes in the ranks of Obama haters within that real estate, 100,000 is more like it, and that may be generous.
To compare, I checked out a picture of the 1995 Million Man March organized by the African American community. Estimates of that march ranged from a ridiculously low 400,000 by the National Park Service to a BBC estimate of 1.9 million. Here’s a link to a picture of that event. Note the reflecting pool in the front that the “taxpayers” today barely got past.
But hey, 100,000 people is nothing to sneeze at. I’d take a peace demonstration, or a climate, or a healthcare, or a jobs, or one linking all four issues right now that had that many people, hands down. That’d be a political jolt to the system that is very much needed.
Today, however, was the day of the right-wing tea baggers.
Here are some of the things that I was struck by as I observed the signs (mostly hand-made, it should be pointed out), heard the speeches and listened to the comments and discussion of those around me:
* Though the efforts in Congress to pass climate and health care legislation were put forward by the organizers as the two motivating issues, this was very much a “multi-issue” crowd. Indeed, more than those two issues, what seemed to be most dominant was overt hatred for Obama and the (currently liberal) government. There were signs with Obama with a Hitler mustache. “ObamaCare Makes Me Sick” was a popular one. Others included “Get the Dictators Out of the White House,” “No to Obama’s Radical Agenda,” “Worst Marxist President Ever,” “One Big Ass Mistake America (put together the first letters),” and the delusional “I’m More Afraid of Obama than Osama.”
* The anti-government ones included, “Kick Out Marxist Czars” (there was a lot of talk from the stage and lettering on the signs about “czars” in government, apparently the influence of radio-talk-hater-racist supreme Glenn Beck), “Free Markets Work, Big Government Doesn’t,” “No to Government Spending, Health Care, Interference,” and “Debt, Corruption, Loss of Freedom.”
* Other signs of note: “Freedom and Democracy, Not Socialism,” “Abolish ACORN” (there were a number of anti-ACORN signs), “Uphold the Constitution” (also repeated a number of times), “We Don’t Redistribute Wealth, We Earn It,” “Joe Wilson: A Politician with Courage,” and “Cap and Trade Congress.” There were relatively few signs about the cap and trade/climate issue, surprisingly.
* There was also a 100%, complete and total absence from either the stage or people’s signs of any negative words about banks and corporations. Given that the right wing historically is not generally a fan of bankers and monopolies, and given the widespread unpopularity of the recent multi-trillion dollar handouts to banks, this seemed significant. It may be that the hatred of our first African American President was so strong that it crowded out this “economic royalist” issue. Or maybe the well-connected organizers used their influence to prevent this issue from being raised.
* At one point a speaker from the stage led the crowd in a chant of “universal health care is a big fat no.” More often chanted, however, was the good old patriotic standby, “USA, USA, USA.”
* A person handing out small American flags got a lot of knowing smiles as he said that people should get them before they’re outlawed. Yeah, that’s really going to happen.
* For a city that is majority African American, this was an incredibly mono-chromatic demonstration. After seeing a black person about a half-hour after arriving, I began counting, one by one. I saw about a dozen over a period of 2 ½ hours. It was similar as far as people with Asian and Latin features.
* There were also relatively few young people, perhaps, at most, 5% of the crowd. It was a middle-aged and older crowd.
* Finally, there was a lot of anti-two-party sentiment expressed from the stage, not so much via the homemade signs, but when speakers castigated both Democrats and Republicans, they got a rousing response. One speaker said that the Republicans of today are like the Democrats of 20 years ago, and the Democrats of today want to “take over all of our lives.”
So is there political significance to today’s demonstration?
I’m not sure there is. What it felt to me was that it reflected, more than anything else, the current minority status of the Republicans in Congress and their loss of the White House. This was a delayed reaction to the results of the November, 2008 elections. It was the use of a tactic used repeatedly by the Left during the eight years of the Bush/Cheney gang because we had little governmental power and very limited options when it came to the federal government until 2006 when the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress. And we didn’t have too much then.
This reality of relative powerlessness is currently the situation of the right-wingers.
They’ve clearly gotten some political traction from the way that the Democrats handled the health care issue, at least up until Obama’s Wednesday evening speech, as well as from all of the angst about the House cap and trade bill. Whether they are able to continue to do so going forward from today’s action will to a large extent, short term, depend upon how the Democrats follow up from Obama’s speech, and beyond that how they handle the climate, Wall Street regulation and other issues.
There was one other political dynamic —speakers and signs about the U.S. as a “Christian nation.” One sign said, “Proud Christian American.” More than one speaker got a good response from the crowd by calling upon them to stand up for Christian values.
As we interact with this movement in the coming months and years, we need to call them out on this lie. It is not Christian to oppose universal health care as an objective, which these people do. It is not Christian to oppose all efforts to address the climate crisis, to deny that it exists. Talk about a “right to life” issue! It is not Christian to demonize low-income people from south of the U.S. border who come here to try to find work to keep themselves and their families alive, as speakers did from the stage.
Ultimately, many of the sentiments expressed by the tea-baggers are deeply dishonest, deeply un-American. We need to keep them in their rightful place as a distinct, if sometimes loud, sometimes dangerous, political minority. We will do that to the extent that we out-organize them at the grassroots, engage in creative and mass action, and pressure the federal government to pass genuinely progressive legislation. That’s the way we’ll keep down the supporters of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.