When democracy counts

Seattle Soundings

Sure, corporations are people whose dollars are (in the Orwell formulation) more equal speech than others. And, yeah, our political system is more corrupt the higher you go, with the halls of Congress filled with actors auditioning for their future careers as lobbyists for the companies they now "regulate."
The system sucks. Democracy is broken. Ordinary people can't make a difference.
Ordinary people must not have gotten the memo.
Last Thursday, on "Tax Day," Tea Party sympathizers staged a reported 20 events around Washington state (the actual number was probably several dozen), with 3,000 people in Olympia and several hundred more in Seattle. (Several anti-war groups also spent the day leafleting area post offices about the military budget.)
The previous Saturday, several thousand rallied in Occidental Square in favor of immigrant rights. The week before that, the big local demonstration was in favor of health-care reform. This week, groups all over Puget Sound will publicly mark Earth Day.
Most of these groups - left, right and uncategorizable - operate despite a near-complete lack of evidence that anyone is paying attention on a given day. They demonstrate despite sporadic, capricious media attention. Their activism is an act of faith, that if they make enough noise and get enough allies to make noise, they can make a difference.
Sometimes, they do make a difference. And a big part of whether they get the critical mass and perceived "legitimacy" needed to sway people who make public policy decisions is that capricious media attention, which was on full display locally last week.

Different people,
different protests
The Seattle Times, our region's self-styled newspaper of record, gave the Tea Party Tax Day protests big play (as did local TV): a big banner headline; full-color, above-the fold photo; three reporters on the story, which was updated multiple times on the web in the next 24 hours - even though everyone had long gone home, so there was no additional "news."
The immigration rally - which was 10 times larger than the Tea Party event in Seattle, and which, like the Tax Day rally, was part of an enormous network of national and statewide demonstrations - got much less splashy treatment: one reporter, filed once (hours after the fact), no top-of-page treatment.
The Tax Day protestors (we were reminded multiple times) were patriotic; immigrants and their sympathizers clearly were not, since, as the Times inevitably reminds us in such stories, some folks were carrying Mexican flags. (It somehow never gets mentioned that far larger numbers of immigrants at these rallies carry American flags. They did, after all, choose to come here.)
Why the star treatment for an exercise in democracy that was only one-tenth the size of a similar one five days earlier?
Well, for one thing, the immigration rally was on a weekend, and in these days of journalistic downsizing, there's hardly anyone left to work on the weekends. But beyond that, some interesting clues were suggested by a New York Times story about the CBS News poll released last week that profiled people who self-identify with the Tea Party movement:
•Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public.
•The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.
•Tea Party supporters are more likely (than other Republicans) to classify themselves as "angry."
And, yes, it is about race: Tea Party supporters' fierce animosity toward Washington -and the president in particular - is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.
The overwhelming majority of supporters say Obama does not share the values most Americans live by and that he does not understand the problems of people like themselves. More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent think that the administration favors blacks over whites - compared with 11 percent of the general public.
In other words, Obama is black (his biracial heritage is meaningless here), so he cares more about other blacks (by definition, poor) than whites like themselves. Since Obama's actual record - corporate centrism from a man who is a product of Harvard Law School and a self-made millionaire - it's kind of difficult to attribute this solely to class or politics. Race is a factor, too.

Sharing the power?
This brings us back to Seattle's dueling protests and The Seattle Times coverage.
Such polls, of course, say nothing about any given individual Tea Party sympathizer, only an aggregate tendency. But it's the tendencies that drive news coverage.
And if the aggregate Tea Partier is an angry, well-off, older, straight, white male - well, it's difficult not to think of publisher Frank Blethen himself.
More fairly, such folks disproportionately use and buy ads in newspapers and TV news. The "ordinary" folks answering the poll's description ran the country (and its newspapers) for the last 200 years. What they're angry about, in the end, is now having to share power with the rest of us.
Democracy - welcome to it.
At the moment, identifying with the Tea Party means your outrage counts for more in local media eyes than, say, the anger of a poor Latina immigrant. But it'll even out. We'll know we've reached true equality when the cops rough everyone up the same way.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]