Monday, March 01, 2010

Invitation To A Tea Party

I had a startling insight yesterday. I realized that in a fundamental way I’m aligned with the Tea Party people.

Before you quickly move on in disgust, a couple of disclaimers. I despise their heroes – Glenn Beck, Palin and the others. On specific issues they care deeply about my views would get a zero approval rating from them – and vice versa. I am repulsed by their chauvinism. And more.

What I realized is that their appeal and the passion that accompanies it comes from a growing feeling that the government is unwilling and incapable of solving the problems that this country faces. The government can’t be trusted.

Let’s be clear about what I mean by ‘government.’ I don’t mean the bedrock institutions upon which the United States was founded. They may be imperfect, but they’ve stood the test of time and can work. By government I mean the people who are leading these institutions. They can’t be trusted to act in the public interest. Their interest is in their reelection first and their party second.

The result? A state of gridlock. A country that is ungovernable. A good example is the country’s finances. There’s a lot of talk about the budget, the deficit, the debt, burdening our grandchildren with an unsustainable economy, etc. For most Americans this is an abstract threat. It’s an academic conversation that doesn’t affect them today. And today is what they are concerned about.

In a desperately poor country people who are hungry aren’t interested in long-term development needs. If your house is on fire you want to save your home, not start a deep discussion with your spouse about your relationship. In this country people are hurting now. So their focus is on today, not tomorrow. They don’t have a job or are barely getting by. They’re in danger of losing their home. They need medical attention. They’re in need and they have noticed that their government doesn’t seem to give a shit.

At the same time they see that many people aren’t suffering. The contrast between the haves and have-nots is palpable. And many of the have-nots are ex-haves. What they see is that the payoff for doing the right thing, working hard, paying their bills and taxes, educating their kids, is a frightening and depressing situation over which they have no control.

And no elected or appointed official has the guts to tell them the truth – to talk straight to them. Either about today or the future. They could say: You need a job? Fine, we’ll provide incentives for businesses to hire you and if that doesn’t work the government will step in with jobs and training. You need help keeping your home? Fine, we’ll make sure that you won’t lose your home.

Yes, there are efforts and programs in the works to deal with these immediate issues. But you know what? They’re not working – or they’re not working fast enough. The evidence? The Tea Party and people like me. But, you say, the last thing the Tea Party folks want is for the government to get involved. True, but no government at all or all government all the time are flip sides of the same coin. These extreme positions are the refuge of the frustrated. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the country is polarized. We’re all frustrated.

You want to straighten out our economy? Simple – raise more revenue and spend less. Here’s where the straight talk gets binding. Because this means that people who can afford it have to pay more. And people who are receiving entitlements have to get less.

If the politicians aren’t willing to confront the truth and tell people honestly what it’s going to mean for them the gridlock will continue. Some echo Jack Nicholson and say people “can’t handle the truth.” I disagree. I think people can handle the truth – if they’re convinced it isn’t bullshit.

The conventional wisdom is that such a path is political suicide. I don’t think so. But if it is, it’ll be suicide in a good cause.

Have a nice day!


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