On October 31, 2008, at a campaign rally at the University of Missouri, candidate Barack Obama said “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Not everyone took him literally. In the fourteen months since he became president, however, he has clearly demonstrated that is precisely what he intended to do. It’s what motivates his supporters and infuriates his opponents. It is the standard by which Americans ultimately will judge his presidency.
For his supporters, Obama’s vision of a transformed America is a country where government guarantees “social justice,” provides “universal healthcare,” and subjugates “corporate greed” to the general welfare. Obama’s America participates as an equal in the international community of nations, addresses conflicts, climate change, and poverty through consensus, contributions, and negotiations rather than as a superpower acting as the leader of the free world and the world’s policeman.
Obama’s opponents see his transformation as turning America into a European-style socialist democracy where wealth is redistributed and free enterprise, individual responsibility, initiative, and personal freedom are subjugated to the will of the state. It abandons American Exceptionalism, decreases individual freedom, sacrifices US for international interests, and weakens America.
Whether Barack Obama succeeds or fails as a transformational president, of course, largely depends on the results of the 2010 and 2012 elections; and right now the outlook for him isn’t good. The estimated two million people that participated in two thousand Tea Party rallies across the nation last week are determined to stop him, take control of Congress away from Democrats in November, and, in 2012, relegate Obama to the role of a transitional, one-term president. Their ranks, and their chances of success, grow larger every day. They represent attitudes and opposition to the Obama administration that goes far beyond their own ranks.
If they succeed by helping elect enough Republicans to block radical legislation, even if they don’t take control of the House and Senate, President Obama will make his contribution to the transformation of America, but it won’t be the one he had in mind. His contribution will have been arousing a grass-roots movement that stands up for traditional American values, principals, and Exceptionalism and could change the course of American politics.
None of us have a crystal ball that allows us to foresee the future, but we know that America, from its inception, has been transforming–evolving–socially, demographically, and politically. The progressive-conservative struggle dates from the end of the 19th century. In recent decades, Republicans and Democrats are responsible for the hyper-partisanship, out of control spending, runaway entitlements, and the current and future economic crises that are transforming and weakening America.
As has always been the case in America, fundamental and lasting transformational change–the Women’s Suffrage movement, the Abolitionist movement, and the Civil Rights movement–comes from the people, not from the government. The Tea Party movement may not rise to their level, but before you dismiss its transformational potential consider the nature of those other movements and how they were regarded in their times.
Those earlier movements were based on simple ideas–women have the right to vote, the immorality of slavery, and equal rights for all races. They embodied anger at government for failure to address underlying problems and were expressed through predominantly non-violent protest. The Tea Party movement, at its core, is about fiscally responsible, limited government based on the free enterprise, self-reliance principals embedded in the US Constitution. It is peaceful and non-violent.
Like those other movements, it threatens the established power structure, in this case Democrat-Party-dominated government, and, therefore, is attacked and ridiculed as a fringe movement by it. The left, which believed it had the exclusive rights to anti-government protest and demonstrations, and the left-leaning mainstream media, cast Tea Party goers in the most negative light. They call them ignorant extremists, racists, and Astroturf.
Objective analysis and surveys of Tea Party participants show this not true. They are, predominantly, main stream conservatives, Republicans, Independents and Democrats who are fed up with a government they believe neither listens to nor represents them.
Many, if not most people, up to this point, don’t see the Tea Party movement as transformational. They see it more as a nascent third political party that will factionalize American politics, and, like other third-party movements, run out of steam and eventually fade away. History may prove them correct.
What’s clear, however, is that two potential transformational forces, President Barack Obama with his liberal Democrats and the Tea Party movement, offer competing visions of America. One or the other will ultimately triumph or they will cancel each other out and politics as usual will prevail.
Barack Obama’s place in history as the first African American President of the United States is secure. His place in history as a transformational president is not. Who knows? History may well reflect that the Tea Parties of the 21st century had as profound an impact on American history as the tea parties of the 18th century.