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Melissa Harris-Perry: Fear Is Driving America's Politics, But Hope Is the Only Antidote

In her speech Monday in Washington, D.C., at Take Back the American Dream, Perry explained that racism, anti-immigrant panic and the war on women all drive our politics.

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Americans, of course, responded in very typically American ways to that enter into something that many people in the rest of the world had already experienced. We began with a kind of nationalist fervor that was justified as reasonable patriotism. I'd like to point out that we clearly must have been having post-traumatic stress disorder because, for about a year after September 11th, there were African American men walking around the city of New York with NYPD hats on. That can only be explained as a PTSD response. We'll just let you sit with that for a minute.

But the other thing that happened in that moment I don't want to miss is [we saw] a new version of what America typically needs emerge, and that is a new racial enemy. Americans, in part, identify who we are and who deserves what through our notions of whiteness and the racial enemies that are the non-whites. In this moment, the new racial enemy became not so much Reagan's "welfare queen" (who was imaginary), but instead this imagined other that is somehow Muslim or Arab or Sikh or something else.

We became willing to stomach a kind of horrific racial violence in the name of national security. It's something that we have been willing to stomach as a people over and over again in our history. The PATRIOT Act was not an act of a Republican president acting alone. The PATRIOT Act was a bipartisan decision...it was not bought and paid for by corporations; it was bought and paid for by our fear.

"We made these choices"

As much as we have our eyes on the Citizens United decision, we have to remember that it was our collective angst -- maybe not the people in this room -- but our collective angst that gave permission to Democrats in the House to rally behind Republicans in the White House under the banner of nationalist patriotic security with the goal of reducing both our domestic civil liberties and giving us an entrance into what is, at this moment, an everlasting war. We made these choices.

So, that was September 11, 2001. An interesting thing happens a few years later. The Democrats need to run a presidential candidate. And it turns out Democrats are really very bad at one thing -- actually, a couple of things, but one thing in particular --- and one of the things we're very, very bad at is trying to think about what kind of Democrat Republicans will vote for. Right? This our, like, predictive ability thing. Probably the only reason we wound up with candidate Obama is because we ran an open-seat race, and so we didn't really know who we were running against and so we got all, like, free with our actual preferences, and ended up with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the final two. We never would have made those choices had we been running against an incumbent; we undoubtedly would have picked John Edwards. Let's just be honest.

But in 2004, we chose what we thought would be the good, moderate candidate, one that would get Republican votes, and that, of course, was John Kerry, who showed up at the 2004 [Democratic National Convention] and saluted and said, "Reporting for duty."

We did not, in the fall of 2004, launch, as a Democratic Party, an attempt to push back against the war effort; quite the opposite, Democrats decided to run a soldier under the banner -- the idea that he could do even better at the war machine. So what changed it?