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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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An accidental senator?

Of course, we know what happened then, right after that. The young guy, he was a state senator in Illinois, he managed to make it into the U.S. Senate only because the Republican Party in Illinois was in such a shambles that their decision for a candidate to run against him was Alan Keyes. And on a Wednesday, I can probably beat Alan Keyes for almost any race. This is not to say that State Senator Barack Obama is anything short of exceptional, but the ease with which he walked into the U.S. Senate had everything to do with the failures of Judy Baar Topinka and the Illinois Republican Party. Thanks, Judy; we appreciate that.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the national figure who emerges is Barack Obama on one hand, and Hillary Clinton on the other, and the sense among the American people that what we had just done and had been doing since 2001 was not the best of who we were, that we were capable of something else.

I loved the 2008 campaign. It was great fun. It was -- it just was, that 2008 campaign -- great fun. But it wasn't fun because the Obama for America campaign was so brilliant; they were fine. It was great fun because of the freelancing that went on. Remember the freelancing that went on? Here Barack Obama goes and does this amazing thing in New Hampshire. He loses [the New Hampshire primary], and then gives a victory speech -- which takes real gumption. He loses in New Hampshire and he's like, screw it, I'm gonna give "Yes We Can" anyway. He stands up and gives [his] "Yes We Can" [ speech]. It's an amazing moment. Wow, that's hot! And then we walk away -- until, a week later, and what happens? Will.I.Am remixes "Yes We Can" (video).

When you think about why "Yes We Can" matters, it's not because of Barack Obama giving it; it's because Will.I.Am remixed it and you post it on your Facebook wall and then you emailed it, and it became viral. The excitement of the 2008 campaign was the way in which, [through] freelancing and technology...ordinary people decided that what we had been doing since September 11, 2001, was no longer the best of who we were, and how the 2008 campaign might provide an opportunity for us to indicate the best of who we were, the exceptionalism that we define as what made us exceptional: our willingness to think about either a white woman or a black guy [as president of the United States]. That's cool...

The response from the right was a kind of anxiety about what that meant -- a willingness to pull us back into what we had been doing for the years before. So, once President Obama is elected, the language is that he is a secret Muslim. Of course he's a secret Muslim because remember on September 11, 2001, the racial enemy becomes the Muslims. Of course, you can't be a secret Muslim. You can be a secret Christian; it's a different kind of religion. A Christian, all you gotta do is [say], "I love Jesus, he's in my heart," and then you can be a Christian. You can just do that secretly. But, like, if you're a Muslim there are certain kinds of practices that you have to do, so you can't, like, secretly be one. That's not how it works. You notice them praying five times a day.

Racism, anti-immigrant panic and the war on women