It's tax day, and Tea Party participants want you to know they're boiling with rage, denouncing activist government and the taxes that pay for it. Analysts point out that much of the anti-tax fervor is based on half-truths and misinformation: from the myth that half of Americans don't pay any taxes to the misconception that President Obama has raised taxes on working people (a February CBS/New York Times poll found that just 2 percent of those sympathetic to the Tea Party movement realized that they have received a substantial tax cut from Obama's stimulus plan, compared with a still-abysmal 12 percent of the general population.) But beneath the scrim of misapprehensions and half-truths, the well-spring of authentic frustration is unquestionable.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich argues that the current surge of anger has little to do with policy debates over health care, taxes or any other substantive topic. Instead, he contends, the rage is rooted in anxieties about demographic change in America, "fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play."
But racial anxiety doesn't tell the whole story. In a speech last week at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered a different interpretation as he explained populist rage to an academic audience:
The jobs hole - and the decades-long stagnation in real wages -- are the source of the anger that echoes across our political landscape. People are incensed by the government's inability to halt massive job loss and declining living standards, on the one hand, and the comparative ease with which government led by both parties has made the world safe again for JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, on the other hand.
Rescuing the big banks hasn't done much for Main Street. The very same financial institutions that got bailed out have not only cut way back on lending to business, they have never stopped foreclosing on American families' homes.
The fact is that for a generation we have built our economy on a lie--that we can have a low-wage, high-consumption society and paper over the contradiction with cheap credit funded by our foreign trading partners and financial sector profits made by taking a cut of the flow of cheap credit.
So now a lot of Americans are angry. And we should be angry. And just as we have seen throughout history, there are plenty of purveyors of hate and division looking to profit from our hurt and our anger.
Trumka doesn't discount the potency of fears of demographic and social change. Rather, he argues that if our democracy can deliver economic policies that address Americans' economic pain, "hate and division" can be overcome.
In much of Europe, racial hatred and political violence prevailed in response to the mass unemployment of the Great Depression. And in the end, we had to rescue those countries from fascism-- from the horrible consequences of the failure of their societies to speak to the pain and anger bred by mass unemployment.
Why did our democracy endure through the Great Depression? Because working people discovered it was possible to elect leaders who would fight for them and not for the financial barons who had brought on the catastrophe. Because our politics offered a real choice besides greed and hatred. Because our leaders inspired the confidence to reject hate and charted a path to higher ground through broadly shared prosperity.
This is a similar moment.
The union movement's answer is to try to channel justified rage towards its rightful target - not the taxes that educate our children, protect our streets, maintain our highways and keep dangerous products off the store shelves; not the health care bill that bears little resemblance to the "big government" caricature painted by its most ardent opponents - but the real economic policies that continue to prioritize the captains of finance over working people and the millions of Americans who want to be working again. Labor's effort to make American politics answer to the legitimate economic concerns of the American people may be our nation's best hope.