Why is the Angry Public so Angry?
I think we all know why the Tea Party movement arose — and why even the polls do not quite reflect the growing generic anger at incumbents in general, and our elites in particular.
Anger at Everything?
There is a growing sense that government is what I would call a new sort of Versailles — a vast cadre of royal state and federal workers that apparently assumes immunity from the laws of economics that affect everyone else.
In the olden days, we the public sort of expected that the L.A. Unified School District paid the best and got the worst results. We knew that you didn’t show up at the DMV if you could help it. A trip to the emergency room was to descend into Dante’s Inferno. We accepted all that in other words, and went on with our business.
But at some point — perhaps triggered by the radical increase in the public sector under Obama, the militancy of the SEIU, or the staggering debts — the public snapped and has had it with whining union officials and their political enablers who always threaten to cut off police and fire protection if we object that there are too many unproductive, unnecessary, but too highly paid employees at the Social Service office. In short, sometime in the last ten years public employees were directly identified with most of what is now unsustainable in the U.S. The old idea that a public servant gave up a competitive salary for job security was redefined as hitting the jackpot.
The Tea Party is not over
There is another Tea Party theme that those who play by the rules are being had, from both the top and bottom. The Wall Street bailouts and financial help to the big banks smelled of cronyism, made worse by the notion that liberal “reformers” like Obama got more from Big Money than did the usual insider Republican aristocrats. (The continual left-wing trend of wealthy elites is an untold story, but it suggests a sort of noble disdain: “We make so much that we are immune from the hurt of higher taxes, but like expanded entitlements as a sort of penance for our privilege.”)
Emblematic of the anger at both top and bottom was the 2008 meltdown: those who had not played by the rules still got their mortgages, then defaulted, and left the taxpayer with their bills; those who made the loans and profited without risk took the bailout money, and left us with the cleanup. Those in between with underwater mortgages and higher taxes pay the tab.
We are not 19th-century poor
Somehow we forget that we are in the 21st century with our multitude of cell-phones, laptops, no-down-payment new car leases, big-screen TVs, cheap food, and accessible rent that have permeated all society and given the proverbial underclass appurtenances that only the very rich of the 1960s could have dreamed of. Yet the Dickensian rhetoric has only intensified. There is rarely any acknowledgment of the public’s investment in anti-poverty programs or of its efforts to promote social equality. Instead, an overtaxed electorate is constantly reminded of its unfairness and its moral shortcomings. (I just left a multimillion dollar ICU unit in Fresno, where I was visiting a relative. Over a third of the visitors there did not seem to speak English, and so I was impressed by the public generosity that extends such sophisticated care to those who that day seemed largely to have arrived here recently from Mexico. The notion that a visitor to Mexico could walk into such a unit in Mexico City and get instant, free — and quality — care is, well, inconceivable. Yet politicians talk of our heartlessness, not our generosity.)
There is a sense of futility: new higher taxes won’t lower the deficit and won’t improve infrastructure or public service. Much of it will go to redistributive plans that, the middle believes, will only, fairly or not, acerbate social problems. In California there is a sense (born out by statistics) that we lack a civil and humane public culture brought on by two often neglected facts: a small cadre of overpaid public employees ensures that we don’t have the money for continuance of basic public services; and, second, we feel our tax money is going to redistributive entitlements rather than focused on improving a collapsing infrastructure of dams, canals, freeways, airports, and trains. The idea that a California could ever again build its share of the transcontinental railroad, recreate its Sierra network of dams, copy the Central Valley Water Project, or match the 1960s standards of the UC and CSU university systems is laughable. (But we surely could write a position paper on why the above are either ecologically unsound or in fact counterproductive.) In short, our intent now is not achievement, but equality by any means necessary.
Law — what law?
There is an anger that the law is now malleable. Creditors are bumped at Chrysler, violating contractual agreements. We hear of rumors that cap and trade and amnesty can be accomplished by administrative fiat rather than by law. Of course, BP is demonic in its Gulf performance, but where does Obama obtain the legal right to demand $20 billion in confiscated capital (why then not $50,100, or 200 billion?).
Federal immigration law — as Labor Secretary Hilda Solis recently demonstrated — is not to be enforced, since it is now a race/class/gender issue, or rather a question of demography as seen in purely political terms. Most accept that “government” goes after the misdemeanors of the law-biding citizen to justify its existence, while ignoring the felonies of the lawbreaker, whose enforcement requires expense, and occasional danger. (Why else would the federal government declare some border spots as “no-go” areas in the style of Sadr City?). Are we in Jacobin times, when revolutionary fervor determines which laws are enforced and which not, as if their validity is a political matter alone?
Success in not an accident, but then neither is failure
For some reason, our elite classes either cannot or will not explain openly and without artifice why it is that innately wealthy countries like Mexico or those in the Arab world or in Africa cannot adequately feed, educate, house, and employ their own citizens. Instead, we are to assume that some sort of ubiquitous oppression exists that that makes us wealthy,and others thousands of miles away poor, and requires apologies rather than exegesis. (Don’t dare suggest that the age-old causes of wealth and poverty still apply everywhere: either one ensures the rule of law, private property, an open economy, a free press, independent judiciary, constitutional protections, and religious tolerance, and allows science to evolve free from government and religious interference, or one does not and stays impoverished).
The Wages of Never Waste a Crisis
All of which brings us back to Obama. Why has he crashed in just 18 months, or, better yet, why still at 47 percent approval? Perhaps many don’t want to be accused of racism in openly stating their disappointment. Others feel that to admit his failures is a sort of self-incrimination of having voted for him; others still believe in a honeymoon and want to give their relatively fresh president a fair shot. All that said, I think his polls will soon reach historic lows, largely because he did not address middle class unease, but instead manipulated it to press for a transformational neo-socialist agenda, when most wanted less not more government.
The point is not that Obama is ipso facto as president responsible for the recession, the 10% unemployment, the ongoing wars, the congressional corruption, or the BP spill, but rather that he sold himself on the notion that he was not merely a different politician (originally, distinct from Hillary and Bush, and then McCain), but an entirely new sort of public figure altogether, beholden to no one, eager for bipartisan 21st century-change, ready to address long-festering problems in untraditional ways.
You were had
After 18 months, the people feel they have been had — in the way that a blow-dried mansion living, philandering John Edwards is hardly an advocate for the “other America,” or a green-scheming, instant multi-millionaire Al Gore is hardly a disinterested advocate for welcoming reasonable debate about a sustainable planet. Prophets fall harder, especially when “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” prove to be a reflective of the Chicago way, the snooty ineptness of the Harvard lounge, and the shrill leftism of SEIU.
Rangel, Dodd, Geithner, the Blago mess, the lobbyists, the earmarks, and the political bribes to pass health care together have convinced half the electorate in just a few months that Obama is not merely not a reformer, but perhaps the most ethically compromised president since Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon.
Stimulus is Still Borrowing
His massive borrowing and poorly focused “stimulus” simply squandered federal cash and made things worse. As we go over the cliff, we are told by some that the stimulus was too small or we need to be bolder still and print ever more money — sort of like the madman who screams he needed wings as he jumps into the abyss. By constantly demonizing business, and libeling everyone from surgeons to investors, the administration scared the private sector. If that were not enough, serial loose talk of new taxes, health-care surcharges, income tax increases, caps coming off income exposed to FICA hikes, rumors of federal VAT or excise taxes, all coupled with the states raising income and sales taxes, has persuaded employers either to hold off buying equipment and hiring, or to look for part-time workers only. Psychology, of course, matters.
War on the war on terror?
The war on terror is seen not as a war at all, but a showcase of good intentions, and so constantly renamed, punctuated by apology, and characterized by complete hypocrisy and contradiction, whether flip-flopping on Guantanamo or the KSM trial, the politically correct new euphemisms, the appointments like Janet Napolitano or John Brennan, or the Orwellian adoption of the very Bush protocols (Predators, renditions, tribunals, wiretapping, intercepts, etc.) that Obama not long ago demagogued as unconstitutional. I fear the threat has grown, not passed.
Abroad, there is a general rule: any nation that was well intended toward the United States between 2001-09 (e.g., Britain, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Israel, Poland, etc) is now suspect; those that clearly were anti-American in that era (eg., Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Palestine, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, etc.) now earn American outreach and deference. Is it better to have been a friend or enemy of the U.S? The Russian spy ring, the Chavez socialist tour, the Syrian sale of missiles to Hezbollah, the Iranian full speed ahead on nuclear attainment, the increase in foiled terrorist plots at home, the China snub, and the Turkish furor all suggest that both neutrals and our enemies are not swayed by magnanimity as much as emboldened by tentativeness.
The recession, anger with Bush, deficits, the furor at Wall Street, unease with the long wars abroad — all that put the American people into a restive, herd-like mood by 2008 to the point that they were liable to charge at any given target. Barack Obama, however, focused that anger by using their hoof-stomping to sneak in a neo-socialist agenda that he knew in normal times had no public support. But he thought the current crisis of public confidence and the fawning media together might help him get it through.
Instead, the herd turned, roared, and now with horns lowered is charging at Obama — and of all people!