By TOM EHRICH
c. 2011 Religion News Service
(RNS) At different points during his downfall, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tried the diversionary tactics favored by autocrats. He blamed the Internet for bringing in dangerous outside influences, and blamed foreigners on the ground for stirring up his citizens.
Unfortunately for him, his opponents were too well-informed, too savvy in using powerful technology, too capable of ferreting out truth and making it known immediately.
Around the world, autocrats, demagogues, corrupt politicians and their benefactors are rushing to learn from Mubarak’s downfall. As they would see it, what did he do wrong? Did he not command a slaughter soon enough? Were his diversions too little too late?
The world’s next popular uprising won’t go down so peacefully. As self-serving leaders crack down hard and fast, we might look back on Tunisia and Egypt as brief Camelots in humanity’s drive for freedom and self-determination.
Lessons to be learned here at home are, as you might expect, vastly more complex. But we have autocrats of our own.
Right-wing wealth has taken control of the Republican Party and the nascent Tea Party movement. Grass-roots anger over the national debt is already being aimed — in a classic diversionary tactic — toward social services for the poor, immigrants, the elderly, health care and environmental safeguards.
None of those factors played the slightest role in the Great Recession that most people are still feeling. They also didn’t fuel a perceived deterioration of values or a growing sense of helplessness.
The collapse of the middle class began three decades ago under Ronald Reagan. The budget deficits that are crippling the public sector began in 2001 when George W. Bush took office, lavished tax breaks on the wealthy and pursued two quixotic wars without purpose or funding.
The real culprits, meanwhile, have bought themselves a government. They’ve abandoned any pretense of serving the common good, and are focused on dialing back their tax burden — even though those taxes, largely paid by the middle class, underwrote the bailouts and benefits that restored their profits.
It’s a money grab and power grab unlike anything we have seen in America since the robber barons. And it is gaining momentum.
Tea Party activists got duped into blaming health care reform for their woes, when in fact it was skyrocketing profits in the health care industry that should have drawn their ire.
The next targets of this diversionary strategy include Medicaid, a program for the poor, and pension programs for the middle and lower-middle class. Anything that takes money away from the wealthy seems under assault.
I don’t doubt that politicians craving donations from the wealthy are already printing signs for “uprisings” like the one in Cairo. They will take aim at the wrong targets, stir up vitriol in a nation already drowning in righteous bile, and merely make conditions worse for the very people waving those signs.
White and older populists will have satisfied an urge to blame dark-skinned minorities and uppity geeks for their woes, but they will have served the nation and their own interests poorly.
Meanwhile, America’s Mubaraks will cash their billion-dollar paychecks and live as large as they can.
A plutocracy built on corrupt politicians and an easily diverted populace isn’t what American freedom and self-determination are about. Preserving our democracy should matter more to us than protecting the wealthy from gate-crashers at their estates.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)