The Tea Party, a misnomer from the start, is, it seems, a yearning to return to what it perceives as an America of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a faction of disenchanted, negative people who believe that government should be highly limited, a sort of return to the days when people lifted themselves up by their bootstraps, and needed no help from anyone. Days when people lived in log cabins, worked on agrarian lands, and tilled the soil. Those who inhabited the cities lived either in poverty or in monumental wealth. The days when the United States Constitution, a venerable document, perpetuated freedom of religion, non-voting women and, of course, that amazing gift to America—the institution of Slavery, which culminated in a Civil War, killing about 600,000 Americans. After the Civil War, the gilded age and the industrial revolution produced the beginnings of the middle class and a claque of millionaires and Robber Barons. Those good old days were not so good. But people “worked mighty hard for mighty little pay,” and understood no one was going to give them a handout. Along came the labor movement, strikes, and a progressive government that broke the trusts, thanks to Theodore Roosevelt. It was not an easy battle. But it was the beginning of a safety net for its citizens, and an attempt at hybridizing a partnership between government and laissez-faire capitalism. It was the beginning of a just society.
We are no longer that country. We have regressed. We are a nation of putatively entitled illiterates, a nation that does not understand its own history, and of politicians who barely understand the complexity of the issues that are overwhelming them. We are a nation with exponentially increasing disparity between rich and poor. Politicians hew to the call of CNN, Fox News, and a strident, brainless debate, taking positions that are not moderate or well thought out. Our government seems dysfunctional because it does not know how to cope with what may be increasingly an ungovernable situation.
I admire the optimism of those who think we are going to innovate and rise to the occasion. But I wonder.
Now we are engaged in a cultural and economic war, a war promulgated by a coterie of privileged corporations, their corrupt lobbyists, and “job creators,” who, the Republican party now believe, will restore our shattered economy through not having to pay more taxes and by shutting down the court system (so called tort reform) cutting social programs, education, pensions, social security, breaking labor unions, and lowering taxes. Tea partiers believe that more jobs will come out of favoring those who will invest if their taxes are lower and are not held to accountability by the law.
Different economic schools of thought cannot agree on whether to tax less spend less or to tax more, spend more on infrastructure and technology. Business might call this investment or capital expenditure. Make no mistake. The debate is more religious and ideologic, and while economists are a valuable resource to tell us what went wrong, they do not seem to be able to predict the future. What most economists do agree upon, however, is that it will take a partnership between government and free markets to perpetuate stability and a climate for innovation and investment. It has always been so and a dynamic market economy needs structure and regulation as well as a safety net for its citizenry. A centrist view of governance has always been America’s strength.
The problem is that we are no longer an agrarian or even an industrial economy. We are a post-industrial economy, with less ability to compete because of rising illiteracy, sloth, and a fundamental denial of what is happening beyond and within our borders. We are turning away educated immigrants, and exporting jobs overseas, because there is no one here to do them and because people in more ambitious countries are willing to work harder for less, are more skillful and better educated. A return to the American century (the 20th) is not at all likely. American Exceptionalism? We are withering in a sea of internal discord, rancor and disparity between rich and poor. The middle class, built through years of struggle and reform, if not already vanished, is clearly more ethereal.
On top of all that, we have leaders who do not seem to be able to rise to the occasion. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have anyone who is able to capture the imagination of the people, to motivate them, to seize the moment. The President seems a capable, intellectual pedant who is afraid to be branded an angry black man, so he tries to compromise and form a consensus that becomes more and more illusory. The Speaker of the House is a political hack that caters to his Tea Party minions with a revolting unctuousness—a disingenuousness that is so obvious it is shocking.
Harry Truman we need you now.