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Of Ghost Dances and the Young

The departure of two Ricks and Michelle Bachmann, the collapse of Gingrich, as well as governors Scott, Walker, LePage, Kasich and Perry all having approval ratings below 45%, suggests that the  Tea Party was somewhat overrated by the corporate media. It also gives me courage to suggest a theory that has been bouncing about in my mind, namely that the unprecedented craziness of the Republican Party leadership has been a reflection of pathology rather than of politics and that what we have witnessed has been the last rites of those trying futilely to return America to a place that they thought, mistakenly, once was and which will never be.

Real politicians, for example, don’t go out and deliberately alienate a demographic as large as women. That’s pure masochism. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University notes:  “In recent elections, voter turnout rates for women have equaled or exceeded voter turnout rates for men. Women, who constitute more than half the population, have cast between four and seven million more votes than men in recent elections. In every presidential election since 1980, the proportion [of] female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of male adults who voted.”

There simply aren’t enough old white guys to compensate for the anger being created by the GOP among women.

And consider a few of the other constituencies that prominent Republicans have  insulted:  9/11 responders, AARP members, Americorps members, bicyclists, black men,  children with pre-existing health conditions, college graduates, college students, consumers, cops, disabled people, disaster victims, ethnically mixed couples, gays, home owners, ill people who need medical marijuana, immigrants and their children, journalists, latinos, Methodists, minimum wage workers, residents of DC and Puerto Rico,  scientists, Social Security recipients, state workers, and unemployed workers.

What may well have happened is what sometimes occurs when a longstanding culture finds itself facing near fatal attack.

For example, during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889, an American Indian named Wovoka claimed to have had a dream in which all his fellow native Americans were taken into the sky as the Earth opened up and swallowed all the whites upon it. The earth then returned to its natural state as a land where native Americans could live in peace.

According to Wovoka, to make this dream real, his native Americans were to follow these instructions: “When you get home you must begin a dance and continue for five days. Dance for four successive nights, and on the last night continue dancing until the morning of the fifth day, when all must bathe in the river and then return to their homes. You must all do this in the same way. . . I want you to dance every six weeks. Make a feast at the dance and have food that everybody may eat.”

The ghost dance culture would sweep across the tribes of western America as the dancers were losing their last hold on their beloved lands.

There are other examples:

– As military supplies poured into the Pacific Islands during World War II, local peoples reacted to the sudden change by developing “cargo cults” that offered magical explanations for the flow of imports. When the war ended, members of the cults built imitation landing strips and aircraft to attempt to recreate the former reality and restart the influx of goods.

– The early 20th century Maji Maji rebellion in Africa was spurred by a medium who
offered medicine he claimed would turn German colonials’ bullets into water.

– Sometimes the strange and the rational are mixed as in America’s first Great Awakening, both an expression of excessive evangelicalism and of nascent equality that would help to lay the philosophical groundwork of the American revolution. Unlike the hierarchical assumptions of the Enlightenment, the Awakening taught that under God all were equal, a principle that even attracted Benjamin Franklin, though he certainly didn’t care for the theology behind it.

– And sometimes the bad times produce not just the strange but the disastrous, as with the rise of Nazism.

Typically, such strange phenomena are a reaction to events that have overwhelmed many and led them to seek solace in a simplistic and seemingly comfortably symbolic solution.

Nazism, for example, didn’t spring up as just an arbitrary evil virus. It fed on:

– Unhappiness in the wake of World War I, a war whose mass killings help set a new low value on human life.

– The collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, and a large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

– The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies. Sound at all familiar?

– The collapse of the country’s self image, falling from world leadership in education, industry, science, and literacy.

Like Ghost Cult dancers in the 19th century, World War II Pacific Islanders wondering where their cargo was, Africans beset by German colonialists, and Germans beset by economic and cultural decline, Americans today face an extraordinary assemblage of change, discouragement, challenges and uncertainties.

Add together climate change, the erosion of democracy, the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, the decline of America’s position in the world, rapid changes in both technology and social values, and the collapse of conventional conservative and liberal politics and we’re lucky to have a reaction no stranger than that of the Tea Party movement.

What will happen next is another story that the end of last one doesn’t necessarily foretell. For example, we have, over the past few decades, slowly disassembled our constitutional democracy without the need for any dictator at all. Corporatized, institutionalized and atomized, we needed only to follow bureaucratic process, administrative regulations and the political commercials we call the news to end up miles from where this country was supposed to be. Our two parties have served as fellow enablers, with concerns for civil liberties, peace and justice as concerns largely left to those outside of the system.

To change what happens next, it is, however, worth looking at the collapse of the Republican ghost dance movement for clues. One of these clues has gotten far too little attention, namely the fact that the GOP right is collapsing mainly because it is heavily the haven of old white men.

Consider that support for Obama among those under 30 is around 54% while for those over 65 it is 38%.

This doesn’t come close to Obama’s support among blacks (88%) or latinos (61%) or the 20 point gap that Obama enjoys with women. But such groups are more fixed in time. What changes things more quickly is when the young start to think dramatically differently and the old start to fade away. For example, Digital Journal reports:

“Tea Party supporters are likely to be older, white and male. Forty percent are age 55 and over, compared with 32 percent of all poll respondents; just 22 percent are under the age of 35, 79 percent are white, and 61 percent are men. Many are also Christian fundamentalists, with 44 percent identifying themselves as ‘born-again,’ compared with 33 percent of all respondents.”

Now compare that with this striking and mostly ignored storyon CNN by Laura Session Stepp about what is happening in the evangelical movement:

Evangelical churches that frequently support conservative candidates are finally admitting something the rest of us have known for some time: Their young adult members are abandoning church in significant numbers and taking their voting power with them.

David Kinnaman, the 38-year-old president of the Barna Group, an evangelical research firm … says that 18- to 29-year-olds have fallen down a “black hole” of church attendance. There is a 43% drop in Christian church attendance between the teen and early adult years, he says.

Consider the following facts about millennials in general:

• Seven in 10 millennials say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable. (According to Kinnaman, young Christians are as sexually active as non-Christians.)
• More than six in 10 millennials (including 49% of Republican millennials) support same-sex marriages.
• Six in 10 millennials say abortion should be legal, a higher proportion than found in the general population. A higher percentage say abortion services should be available in local communities.
Millennials also part ways with conservative orthodoxy on wealth distribution and caring for the environment. According to a report in The Christian Science Monitor, three out of four say that wealthy corporations and financiers have too much power and that taxes should be raised on the very wealthy, and two out of three say financial institutions should be regulated more closely. In addition, most say that creationists’ view on evolution is outdated.

The down side of all this is that the young vote far less than older citizens. Even in 2008, a young electorate allegedly heavily charmed by Obama only produced a turnout of 44% compared 70% of those over 65.

The lesson from this is neither novel nor impossible to deal with. It is that once again the future of our land is in the hands of the young. The politicians and the corporate media won’t tell them this; their potential power remains consistently concealed by those who already have power. But it’s worked over and over in the past and it can work again.


The GOP ghost dance is almost over. But, at present, there is no hopeful alternative other than a continue drift towards a dictatorial culture of impunity for the powerful. The one thing that could make a difference is for the young to discover once again how strong and wise they can be and reintroduce America to the dreams it once had.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.


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