The attempted political assassination of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on January 8 opened a new debate about the depth of political divisions in the United States. It has included hot button issues of gun control and mental illness.
Giffords amazingly survived a gunshot wound through the head, but six of her supporters at the sidewalk meeting died. It included a nine-year-old girl and a federal judge. Thirteen people were wounded.
The shooting occurred at a public meeting held by Giffords outside a busy grocery store in Tucson. The gunman, 22-year-old Jared Loughner, is now under arrest and is not talking.
The political debate began immediately. Loughner was thought to be influenced by the far right. The right attempted to blame the left.
The corporate media and political elites have since circled the wagons, “agreeing” that the assassin was “mentally ill” and acted alone. However, no proof has been provided or a professional psychiatric tests done to reach this conclusion.
This follows a pattern whenever a white person carries out a terrorist or political attack. The attacker is labeled “unhinged” and said to be acting alone.
In contrast, when an Arab- or Hispanic-looking person is involved, there is an assumption of international links. Is he tied to Al Qaeda? Is he tied to the drug cartel or Mexican people smugglers?
The vitriol directed at the Islamic Community centre in New York, where false charges of promoting “holy war” and possible links to terrorism are routinely mentioned by the media, shows the double standard.
Loughner’s mental health is secondary to the debate. Mental illness has always been a taboo subject. It is under-funded and treated with less seriousness than a broken leg.
In 2010, Arizona reduced its funding for mental health care by 50%. Some on the right believe the solution is to involuntary lock up suspected mentally ill citizens.
The issue of gun control has been off limits for years. It is unlikely a new restriction on semi-automatic assault weapons will ever pass Congress.
Loughner fired 30 bullets into the small campaign crowd aiming to kill everyone there, yet the Glock automatic he used was selling like hotcakes within days of the shooting!
Giffords was not a liberal. She belonged to the “Blue Dog” conservative wing of the Democratic Party. A former Republican, she left that party as it became more extreme on immigrant rights and other social issues. She also voted for the health insurance reform bill that the right strongly condemned.
She was targeted by the far right during the 2010 Congressional election campaign. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin put her district under a gun’s cross hair.
Giffords told national television last year that such actions were off limits and that right-wing rhetoric could lead to extremists taking the law into their own hands.
It is not a surprise that, responding to a reporter’s question about who Giffords' enemies were, her father said: “The whole Tea Party.”
Claren Dupnick, the sheriff of Pima County where Tucson is located, went further at a press conference after the shootings: “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become a sort of capital.
“We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
The Tea Party is a mostly white populist movement led by the far right. Its advocates include Fox news commentators and bigots Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, as well as radio demagogues Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage.
These commentators spit out racial and class hatred daily. Much of the Tea Party’s money comes from big corporations and millionaires who bankroll most right-wing campaigns.
Many in the Tea Party openly declare liberals as enemies of the country. Palin says President Barack Obama is consciously weakening the US at home and abroad.
The “birthers” wing of the Tea Party views Obama’s presidency as illegitimate because he was allegedly born in Kenya. (He was born in Hawaii.)
They target “illegal” immigrants and ethnic minorities, and are outspoken critics of “big government” — even as many receive government checks for health care and social security.
Arizona is leading the charge on many of these issues. A recent law was passed to prevent presidential candidates from being on the ballot in the state unless he or she can prove birth citizenship.
It also banned ethnic studies in its schools and instructs its police forces to stop anyone who looks “illegal”. Since Arizona borders Mexico, and is one-third ethnic Mexican, the message is clear.
Republican Party leaders now follow the Tea Party’s lead on most issues, including reversing positions they once held. In fact, most of Obama’s legislative victories, including health insurance reform, were taken from the Republican playbook of previous Congresses.
There has been a general and steady shift to the far right for three decades. It is not just about Obama or naked racism. The shift began under president Ronald Reagan and accelerated with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The false belief was constructed by ruling class elites that raw capitalism is what defeated “socialism”.
Most mainstream politicians — including many on the liberal left — make clear their support for the free market system before offering even modest reforms to excesses of Wall Street.
The Tea Party movement (representing a base of 18-20% of the electorate) has become a tool of the capitalist class to deflect anger from big business. The majority of its supporters are not racists, however. They reflect the generalised anger of the population to economic uncertainty.
But there are hardcore racists in the group. The group allows these elements in — including neo-fascist types — and refuses to throw them out.
Historically, sections of the white working and middle class have been willing to go against their own self-interests to blame Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and liberals for their problems. The real villains — Wall Street and big business — are let off the hook.
White workers in the Jim Crow segregated South sided with the bosses against Blacks, which is why unions rarely took root there.
The most extreme elements within the Tea Party movement include doctrinaire libertarians who oppose “big government”. This includes rejecting aspects of the 1960s civil rights legislation that prevent owners of business from excluding workers on the basis of race — or anything else — on the argument it interferes with business owners’ liberty.
They also oppose the Federal Reserve and other changes in the constitution that limit “individual freedom” and “state rights”.
It is not proven that Loughner supported the Tea Party or was inspired by right-wing demagogues. However, a review of his online activities indicates his support for right-wing and neo-fascist positions on many issues.
What is clear is the atmosphere of hatred for “social justice” pushed by the far right is opening the door to people who are hate mongers and bigots. Real threats are being leveled at those who support the rights of all Americans, especially the most oppressed and exploited.
Tea Party favourite Jesse Kelly, who ran against Giffords in 2010, ran an advertisement in his campaign that said: “Get on target for victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Gifford from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”
The poison in US politics — and it is not just campaign rhetoric — reflects the depth of the economic crisis and the shift of wealth from the working poor and middle class to the ultra-rich.
The far-right demagogues have been able to use that anger, especially among a layer of poor and middle-class whites, to blame the government and minorities for their problems.
Their fire is aimed at the first African American president because he is an easy scapegoat. Racism is still very much a factor of US politics that demagogues can, and do, play upon.
The attempted assassination of Giffords is a reflection of the bigger divide. To wait for the Obama administration, whose pro-rich policies are worsening the situation, to take on the far right will not work.
In the 1930s, unions pressed the government with strikes and other actions. The “New Deal” reforms were introduced to stave off the rising working-class movements for more radical change.
Big changes to discriminatory laws took place due to mass pressure in the 1950s and ’60s.
The US war in Vietnam was stopped by a combination of Vietnamese resistance and the broad anti-war movement on the streets in the US and around the world. This forced the ruling class to retreat.
Waiting for Obama to change his stripes is not a winning strategy. He is already making plans for more compromises to win re-election in 2012.
Obama has decreed a wage freeze for federal workers and state governments are slashing spending and jobs. The austerity policies of the government continue to advance with limited resistance from unions.
African Americans are not ready to push the government, despite the pain Obama’s policies inflict on them.
The problem in US politics today is the void of a progressive, mass-based citizens’ movement to counter the Tea Party forces. So long as this is the case, centre stage will remain in the hands of the demagogues of the right and those fooled by them.
[Malik Miah is an editor of the Detroit-based magazineAgainst The Current and a supporter of the socialist group Solidarity.]