A smirk, a nod, a wink
Now who would ever think
That could erode our state’s
Effectiveness and charm
Or destabilize our fate
And do us long term harm
But the smirk became a sneer
That broadened every year
Becoming then a smear
That covered efforts dear
And that became a shout
To throw the bastards out
And shouts became the shots
At the haves from the have nots
As I try to make sense out of the current state of our democracy, I am reminded how Ronald Reagan cleverly created anecdotes to emphasize his political points, but even Reagan would not be able to understand how much this one anecdote has morphed. You may recall Reagan telling this “story”: “I am from the government and I am here to help.” It was pretty innocent and meant to generate a smirk or two if not a laugh. Yes, of course, Reagan emphasized the negative aspects of government in order to make a political point as well as to entertain his audiences. He favored outsourcing and espoused “small” government although he grew it at an alarming pace along with additional deficits of $1.6 trillion. At no time, in my recollection, did Reagan suggest the destruction of government in order to reach his goals. That task was seized by Grover Norquist: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." Drowning is destruction in most contexts including that of government. We will look at how that concept of destruction has gone viral.
It took years after Reagan for the smirk to become a sneer. Under Clinton, the negative regard for government took deeper root. Right wing Christian fundamentalists led the charge against Clinton partly due to his personal behavior yet the government shrunk slightly during his Administration. Under Clinton, another aspect contributed to the erosion of faith in government. The Waco, Texas law enforcement against Davidians seemed eerily similar to the war philosophy of destroying a village in order to save it. Clearly, Davidians were armed and wrong, but did our methods exceed expected enforcement? Clinton added $1.5 trillion to our debt in his 8-year administration, while our debt grew by another $1.6 trillion in a mere 4 years under GHW Bush. Clinton was followed by GW Bush who added a whopping $5.5 trillion to our debt. The “conservative Republican” portion of the $10.5 trillion added to our national debt prior to Obama was $8.7 trillion. GW Bush alone accounted for 64% of the added debt under Republicans. Bush Jr. may have been influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney who simply said: “Deficits don’t matter.” Deficits have become a major talking point by citizens on both sides of the political divide with largely conservative rhetoric followed by profligate spending. This has exacerbated distrust of government as well as income differences. We borrowed money to fund tax reductions and moved to tax rates not seen since 1950. The move sharply increased incomes for the rich while the middle class received a smaller share and lost good manufacturing jobs. Tax and spend or borrow and spend?
Another controversial policy that eroded our faith in government was the removal of a social safety net that protected both mentally ill individuals and society at large. The Lamterman-Petris-Short Act signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan ushered in a new era of neglect of mental health patients by transferring them to community centers where they languished and lacked the intensive support of psychiatric institutions. At the time in 1967, it appeared to be a humane way to reduce costs and yet provide an effective structure for delivering care and it came with some federal money to reduce the impact on California. The law also prohibited involuntary commitment, so, predictably, some patients refused treatment. Unfortunately, many patients soon were simply homeless and without treatment while they became more visible to the general population. His budget bill abolished 1700 hospital staff positions and closed several state-operated aftercare facilities. People discovered the previously invisible mental patients and many reacted as though government had failed again.
Trust in government has tanked in the past couple decades and excessive spending but borrowing has only played into that image. Another contributor was media extremists like Rush Limbaugh, who has imitators but no peer on the left, depend on outrageous accusations and chatter that help erode respect for government while they build listener rosters. I have recently seen Glen Beck call for “shooting Democrats in the head,” supposedly before they “shoot you in the head.” Increasingly, citizens have begun to relate to “government” as some anonymous and distant “enemy” rather than an outcome of democratic voting. They wanted more immediate and responsive action to address grievances or fears. In the 2000 election, right wing activists stormed some vote counting centers in Florida demanding immediate redress by stopping recounts. Today, they would probably carry guns. This seems to be just opposite what democratic processes require. Miss-steps by elected government continued, however. Under Bush Jr., for example, the questionable war in Iraq was followed by the establishment of a domestic monitoring system of all phone calls by ATT from a San Francisco center. That became a reality that shook some Americans, although it was allegedly done to eliminate and then monitor terrorists. Could Americans be the focus of information gathering by their government? For some, this added to their distrust of government while others felt that the practice was needed to spy on potential terrorists. A divide opened wider and “foreign terrorists” were targets of vituperative language. Soon anybody that looked or sounded Middle-Eastern or Islamic was isolated and condemned in the media and some political extremists. As the economy slipped to recession in 2007 and 2008, additional blame games began. The middle class shrunk while the rich were much richer and while some blamed government policies, others blamed Mexican immigrants. The anti-immigrant rhetoric soared. Meanwhile the arming of individual Americans grew with the lexicon of fear. Some Tea Party events look more like sedition than support of conservative policy.
If you are both a plutocrat and an extremist, then one way of accelerating your goals would be to have the government acquire so much debt that only draconian measures could save the day by, for example, eliminating all entitlement programs. The programs of the FDR Administration rankle ultra conservatives who are still looking to repeal the New Deal. Failing to fund the Iraqi war, added massively to our debt. The arguments for tax breaks are simple and persuasive. It is your money that you earned, why let the government take it away? Instead of tax and spend, it became borrow and spend. Unfortunately, it is not our money. It is money from China, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Korea and they demand interest. The reality of borrowing escapes the logic and the rhetoric.
Unfortunately, the average American is told that his/her jobs are being taken by “illegals” and we need to stop the flow. Were the flow to stop, wages would rise and plutocrats would fight that until wages fell again. Meanwhile, agitators can blame all this on the “government.” What a wonderful world. In the past couple years, even the word “tyranny” has gained traction at rallies and demonstrations. America is far from tyranny, but closer to uprisings. The behavior has become more enflamed and the rhetoric more combative as well as irrational as people fall from the middle class. Banks gambled and homeowners lost, but the government got blamed instead of banks. Permissive regulation contributed heavily to the gambling, and yet the cry by banking is to remove the few regulations that remain. Profits are literally at an all-time high and yet the Chamber of Commerce and other groups are complaining that the government has too much control. Pundits and commentators take up the chant and the chant becomes a shout: “Throw the bastards out.” As we create more have-nots and engorge the plutocrats we also limit opportunities to educate our citizens. Reducing taxes reduces public education, the historic avenue to improve our lives. Wages are stagnant. Homes are lost. Desperation grows and the stable become shaky while the unstable become explosive. “Kill the government,” forgetting that the government is us. Opponents become enemies. Differences become targets. Shouts become gunshots. Selfishness replaces commonwealth. Death replaces life. Failure is in birth throes.
15 January 2011