On Fluoride, The Civil Rights Movement, and the Future of the Tea Party : Updated
I’m working on a long-read essay right now that talks about how the left is following in the easy and seductive footsteps of the right, and how this is a bad thing for both the country and the left itself. I don’t really have room on it to discuss this story, forwarded to me be reader Krista, but I think it’s important enough to highlight on it’s own. It also sets the table well enough for my longer post.
The story Krista forwarded to me discusses an ultra-right wing bill from Kansas which would require municipalities that either have or are considering fluoridated water to tell its citizenry that “the latest science confirms that ingested fluoride lowers the IQ in children.” The bill was being pushed by Mark Gietzen, a conservative activist who until recently has spent his career exclusively focused on pro-life issues, and the bill is being pushed by the state’s most hard-core conservatives. And while all signs point to this bill being defeated, it has touched off a mini-cultural firestorm in the Sunflower State.
Interestingly enough, I was just witness to a similar firestorm in my hometown of Portland. Last May Portlanders voted to reject fluoridated water for reasons similar to the erroneous ones proffered by Gietzen. In Portland’s case, though, it was the far-left liberals who led the oppositional charge. But it bears noting that the segment of Portland’s left that thought fluoride an evil conspiracy by Big Pharma didn’t have the numbers to ruin local kids’ dental health on their own. They had to reach across the aisle, and team up with far-right conservative and libertarian groups who were amenable to the suggestion that fluoridated water was an evil Big Gov conspiracy. That coalition didn’t just win, it crushed: fluoride went down at a 60-40 clip, as the emotional and passionate call to arms from the anti-science crowd resonated with the Rose City’s majority.
The lesson here is larger than it first appears. But before I get to that lesson, let me touch briefly on the civil rights movement.
Since Obama’s election, I have oft heard from conservatives that Democrats are the real racists and that our country’s history proves this to be true. They point out that it was the Republican Lincoln who freed the slaves and the Dixiecrats who pushed and upheld Jim Crow through the early-to-mid 20th century. This, they say, is proof that Democrats are the ones who are really anti-African American. Of course, this view of history is David Barton-ish in its clinging to real but carefully selected facts without context. True, those “rednecks” the left loves to mock used to be Democrats. But thanks in no small part to the civil rights movement, they became frustrated and disenchanted with their party. And when that happened, the GOP was there to happily sweep up their votes and donations. The Republican rank and file, who up to then largely thought of the Dixiecrats as complete and total backwater racist bastards, quickly saw the opportunity for electoral victories and in no time at all were enthusiastically embracing their previous foes. Dixiecrats didn’t suddenly become racially progressive; they formed new coalitions with their former enemies to address their hottest button issues.
I would argue that today’s liberals have learned as little from that history as today’s conservatives. As I’ll discuss in greater detail with my long-read essay, today’s left has too readily adopted the right’s pernicious “the-enemy-of-my-enemy” and “symbolism over governance” mindset. Part of their willingness to do this, I believe, is their belief that today’s political fashions, alliances, and demographics are set in stone. They are mistaken.
As Tea Party members become more and more disenchanted with their GOP masters (and the GOP’s leaders distance themselves more and more from the tiger they’ve chosen to ride), something has to give. There are only two opinions I ever see the left consider on the topic of what, exactly, it is that will give. The first is the idea that a third party is somehow inevitable; the second is the notion that the GOP will stay a whites-only club and liberals will reign supreme for generations. I never see anyone consider what history says will most likely happen, which is this: the Democrats will find an excuse to absorb big chunks of the Tea Party, and liberals will go through mental gymnastics convince themselves to support tomorrow the people they now mock and despise today.
Which brings me back to fluoride.
When the tea party knuckleheads becomes part of the Democratic Party — and they will become part of the Democratic Party, because populism is it’s own master and political parties cater to power and money rather than ideals — it will be because of something like fluoride bills. Or, more likely, it will be because of many things like fluoride bills. It may not be for five years; it may not be for ten. It may not be for twenty. But it will happen.
UPDATE: So, reading in the threads it appears that my example of fluoride is distracting from the point I was trying to make in this post, so allow me to quickly clarify.
My point is not that the issue of fluoridated water is going to drive tea partiers to the Democratic party. Nor is my point that fluoride proves that “both sides do it,” whatever the fish that means in this context. Rather, my point is this:
Political parties, coalitions, litmus tests, and even what it means to be “liberal” and “conservative” are constantly in flux. Yesterday’s progressives were evangelical fundamentalist Christians who fought for the the banning of evolution being taught in schools and were pro-abortion. The Democratic party was once unashamedly pro-Jim Crow, and fiercely battled Republicans to maintain that system. Supporting the banning of “inappropriate” books ebbs and flows though our history as a staunchly conservative position one moment and a necessary progressive one the next.
You don’t even need a new generation of people to have such fundamental changes. If you were to go back in time to the year 2000 and tell people that a liberal Democrat President was pushing for public schools to teach their kids to learn to be good patriotic citizens and conservative Republicans were freaking out because that was the road to fascism, everyone on every side of the aisle would have looked at you like you were from the Bizarro universe. The people who accused Obama of remaking the Hitler Youth in 2009 weren’t just from the same party that rallied around Bill Bennett’s exact same ideas a decade prior – they were the exact same people.
My point isn’t about fluoride in particular. It’s that the things that change us politically — that make us decide that the things that we thought a matter of ballot-box life and death just a few years ago just aren’t that important to us any more — come from things we just can’t predict. All we can really say for certain is that these parties, issues and ideologies that we think of as being etched in stone aren’t. They are always evolving, for good and for bad.