Sunday, October 20, 2013

Competing Fears

American politics is a mess right now because we agree on nothing. Not only do we disagree over what to do about our problems, we don't even agree on what our problems are. The biggest divide between the right and left in America, I think, is over how to understand what is happening in our country.

Conservatives believe that America's problem is moral collapse. Divorce, drug abuse, abortion, declining church attendance, single parenthood, acceptance of homosexuality, crime -- all are symptoms of an underlying moral decay. Much of this is beyond the government's control. But one sort of moral decline is all about the government, and that is our decreasing ability to take care of ourselves. We used to be a country of people who solved our own problems by hard work; now we expect the government to solve them for us. We used to support ourselves, but now we expect the government to pay our bills. We are ever more dependent on government handouts and government subsidies and government programs, and if we don't stop asking the government to do more and more for us we will cease to be a self-reliant people and sink into the lazy squalor of shack-dwelling good-ole-boys collecting dubious disability checks.

Liberals believe that America's problem is unfairness. Racism and sexism, though reduced, are still part of the unfairness, but the urgent crisis is ever growing economic inequality. The rich get more and more, while the middle class gets squeezed and the poor get nothing. The rich are already so rich that they are seizing control of the political process, using Fox News and their huge network of think tanks and political organizations to spread fear of the government among the people who need it most. The threat of taking away their corporate advertising dollars keeps the mainstream media from calling them out. Their stooges on the Supreme Court have licensed them to spend their ill-gotten billions on misleading political ads, and their gerrymandering and bogus vote fraud laws will slowly strip liberals of the right to vote. If they aren't stopped, we will cease to be a democracy and instead become an oligarchy in which most of the people have no power and can only slave at their miserable jobs for ever falling wages.

Populists of the right and left are focused on many of the same problems, but they conceive of them differently. Both, for example, worry that community spirit is declining, but liberals blame capitalism and intolerance while conservatives blame government interference and the refusal of many people to stick to time-tested ways. Both hated the bailout of Wall Street. To liberals this was capitalism out of control, and the obvious remedy is strict regulation, coupled with high taxes on dubious economic activity like derivatives trading. To conservatives the problem started with moral decay -- how many Wall Street honchos go to church? -- worsened by government interference, and the obvious first step is to stop propping up banks and let them stand or fail by their own efforts.

A record number of Americans are using food stamps right now. To liberals, this is proof that the capitalist system is tightening the screws on working people, and they think the system must be expanded to protect the vulnerable from hunger. To conservatives, it is proof of our ever growing dependence on the government, and the only solution is to cut back the program and force people to take care of themselves.

What turns this disagreement into intense political conflict is that both left and right think our problems are urgent. Tea Party rallies are like fire and brimstone church services, the fear of damnation heavy in the air. Liberals aren't quite as angry, but some of my left-wing friends are close to despair. Some are terrified of climate change. Liberals were furious that Obama tried so hard to work out deals with conservatives; they want him to fight like hell against the billionaires and their befuddled minions, and they never liked him more than when he refused to negotiate over the shutdown. As far as most Tea Party voters are concerned, granting any concession to Obama is exactly the sort of moral weakness that is tearing the country down, and they don't want any of it.

I don't see a way out. The country is so closely divided that no party will ever achieve enough control to really put its ideas into practice. Agreement between the two parties is impossible. So I imagine we will drift onward through ever harsher rhetorical battles, lurching from one minor crisis to another, until either we get a big economic boom that makes everybody happier or some major new problem comes along to distract us.

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