Many years ago while talking with someone about the value of history and understanding the past, I was told ‘But who cares?’  At the time I couldn’t find the words to explain what I believed was self-evident.  In retrospect, I wished I had said ‘Well, ask a tree.’ In other words, go tell a tree to sever its own roots and see how long it survives. 

That said, Christine O’Donnell‘s surprising win over GOP’s Mike Castle in Delaware last week is interesting.  To her Tea Party base it’s seen as a huge victory but to the few remaining Republican moderates it’s seen as an obstacle to expanding the appeal of the party beyond the extreme constituency represented by O’Donnell et al. 

The core views expressed by O’Donnell that so appealed to her supporters are simple enough: she believes in ‘freedom’, ‘we the people’, the U.S. Constitution, the imperative of ‘taking back the country’, Christian fundamentalism, and an odd belief that scientists have realized the dream of breeding mice with ‘fully functioning human brains’.  It’s easy to be amused at the infantile vagueness of the former and the creepy specifics of the latter, but that might be missing the point.

With this in mind I came across a brief interview with Noam Chomsky about the Tea Party and the conditions under which people might gravitate towards people like Palin, Glenn Beck and O’Donnell.  He makes an important observation that the concerns of people who flock to the Tea Party are in fact correct and should be respected.  That is, the idea that corporations have a controlling interest in government affairs and that those in power really don’t care about average people but rather care for those more powerful special interests that in reality run the show.  These are not crazy ideas.  What is crazy are the answers they are given by people like those mentioned above:

Why is the economy in the tank?  Its unions and black people milking their ‘entitlements’.  Why is Obama trying to expand health coverage?  Because he is a secret Muslim on a mission to socialize medicine and in fact,  kill you with health care.  Why does the world hate us?  Because like Rome, we are the shining light on the hill and everyone is envious of our success and our moral ‘Exceptionalism’.  And so on.  

The effective combination of corporate financing, the advertising industry and a complicit media to convince people to act against their own interests in favor of the business sector never ceases to amaze me. 

Without drawing too close an analogy, Chomsky goes on to notice the similarities between what’s going on now and late Weimar Germany (1919-1933).  In both cases you have populations under increasing financial duress searching for solutions to their problems, and in their search falling victim to those individuals, who unfortunately exist in every age, that are willing to give answers designed not to help but to exploit.  Within such situations it’s not difficult for an O’Donnell to grab the spotlight no matter how foolish or sincere their rhetoric may be. 

We’ve seen the U.S. move further to the right over the last decade or so, but if the social and political momentum moves even further to the extreme, history does have lessons if our collective memories need refreshing.