Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, ‘All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder-puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!’
– Henry Drummond, “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
Remember the summer of 2008. We dared hope a black man could be elected president. After the long, dark years of a Republican Administration – perhaps the most inept and damaging administration in our nation’s history – we dared hope the world was about to change.
That was the summer many of us discovered Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. The math, after a while, seemed undeniable – but we’d all been fooled before. Then, when Barack Obama actually won, it amazed, it thrilled, it excited. Do you remember watching the rally in Chicago on election night? Can you return to that moment, even for an instant?
By the following summer, things already had changed, not always for the better. The Summer of Hope gave way to the Summer of Town Hall Riots. The backlash was in full swing. Never underestimate the human capacity to misrepresent and to bear false witness.
In the midst of the attempt to follow through on the signature promise of the campaign, the crowning achievement of three generations of Democratic presidents – real health care reform – the response from the right was nothing short of insane. But we should have expected it. Progress has never been a bargain.
But health care reform was enacted, the biggest and most exciting change in public policy since the 1940’s. Yet it was embedded in a toxic political atmosphere, and in the midst of the worst worldwide economic crisis in nearly a century. it required compromise. It was not all we’d wanted. Yet the fear-based response of the right continued to mount.
Thus we came to the summer of 2010, the Summer of the Tea Party Rebellion. The world has indeed changed. Children growing up today will live in an America that has always had a black president. The Democratic majority in Congress, large as it was, never had a coherency or discipline. For a brief six months, there were sixty Democratic senators – Al Franken won his recount – and then the conscience of the Senate, the last of the Kennedy brothers, fell to cancer.
Did Drummond’s “man behind the counter” say to us, “You may have Barack Obama; but you lose Ted Kennedy. You may have the most exciting president in a generation – but you get a Congress of Republican obstructionists who will grind government to a halt. You get real and meaningful Health Care Reform. But you get a backlash against it all, a mindless resurgence of hate and of reactionary fervor we have not seen since the days of Lincoln.”
Perhaps that last is a bit overblown. Certainly, today’s Tea Party has rivals in things more recent than the 1860s – we probably need look no farther back than Selma, or than the McCarthy hearings and the Red scares. Oddly, those periods also involved massive progress for our nation.
But then, the fear from the 1950s and 1960s did eventually subside – or perhaps we should say, it fell back to a low simmer rather than a full boil. Perhaps it is not so much that violence and hatred are the cost of progress. Perhaps progress is a response to the fear that lies beneath the hate.
And what will the Summer of the Tea Party beget? If the previous two summers mean anything, we will continue forward – but at a cost.