Mr. Right came into the office today with a (dare I say) liberal estimate of the attendance at last Saturday's rally in Washington. He said that he had read that the anti-Obama demo had drawn 675,000 people to the capital. At the same time, he accused MSNBC of low-balling the crowd size at 30,000. I had heard that number early in the day on CNN, but I understood it to be the number taken at that moment, with more expected to turn up. The main organizing group for the rally, FreedomWorks, actually has a lower estimate than Mr. Right, claiming 400,000 people. However, his count falls in the middle of estimates, as some overexuberant right-wingers have claimed that 1.2 million people were there. In an unusual moment of empiricism, Mr. Right dismisses that count, explaining that the crowd did not cover the entire Mall, as one would expect from such numbers as some have claimed. He could not recall where he had seen his preferred number, and my own search for the number 675,000 combined with "March on Washington" or "Tea Party" yielded no results from Google.
While he doesn't suffer from some people's compulsion to inflate the turnout to the max, Mr. Right is sensitive to attempts to minimize the size of the crowd. To be fair, I don't doubt that Democrats and sympathizers are trying to do this, just as right-wingers are trying to maximize it beyond the bounds of Mr. R's intellectual integrity. I don't intend to play that game. I made my mockery of the demonstrators back on Saturday, but objectively I think it's a good thing that conservatives are getting over what I took to be an aversion to getting together in crowds and declaring their principles en masse in public. I had thought they had grown content to crouch on their couches, each in splendid isolation and damning any idea of society while communicating with the outside world, outside of the workplace, exclusively online. Maybe it shows how scared they are, for whatever reason, that they've left their caves to find real, live like-minded people. I congratulate them for whatever number they brought together while I insist that it proves nothing about the merits of their argument.
Of course, Mr. Right had to add a few loaded comments. He made a point of noting how neat these protesters were, how they somehow left the Mall as well groomed and unlittered as they found it, as if that proved something about the superiority of their cause. He also made a crack about enjoying the sight of so many "average people" in the streets.
"What makes them average people?" I asked, "What makes them more average compared to a pro-Obama demonstration?"
He never quite answered that question. Instead, he asked why these people should not be considered "working families." If a man and a woman work hard at their jobs and bring home a few hundred grand a year, shouldn't they be considered working families, he queried. Why is it, he pressed, that only the poor get to be called working families? But I wasn't disputing that anyone in the crowd was working class. If anything, he seemed to be implying that this was a demonstration of the affluent, though he has no basis for thinking so. He may assume so based on an original assumption about the sort of people who would come out against Obama, but maybe he should keep such assumptions to himself.
To the extent that the Saturday event counts as a "tea party," one should be very careful about identifying the participants as average folk. I don't doubt that many are, but the flip side of organizers trying to keep their distance from the Republican party is an openness, perhaps a vulnerability, to even less savory elements. Take for example a tea party-type event scheduled for my old home town of Troy, New York on September 26. It's called "The Great Awakening," and posters for it air many of the same concerns about big government expressed at tea parties. But there are other keywords like "false flag" in the mix that tip the knowing observer off to the involvement of "truthers." And as it happens, a Google search for "Great Awakening," "Troy" and "September 26" points you to a truther website. While there's been a big deal made about an Obama administration official being pressured into resigning because of an association with Sept. 11 conspiracy theory, I think there's a lot of the same junk in the midst of the tea party movement, and definitely more than sympathizers like Mr. Right would care to admit. Some Democrats made the mistake of indulging these maniacs back in the Bush years, but in the Obama era it's become clear that the object of their maniacal suspicion was never George W. Bush specifically or his circle generally, but Government and Power as abstract terrors that can just as easily take the form of Barack Obama in their fevered brains. I'm not saying that they now claim that Obama planned the terrorist attacks, but they do seem to believe that Bush and Obama are both minions of that nebulous, malign Power that did mastermind the charade. Their pathological fear of political power draws them as naturally to the tea parties, I believe, as it did to the anti-Bush and anti-war protests of five or six years ago. This just goes to show that not all opposition to the government in power is rational, and not all opposition to government or power in general is rational, either. So before anyone celebrates the crowds who gather for a cause, they might want to look at the actual people a little more closely.