The Thinker

We can never go back to before … nor should we try

A recent Washington Post – ABC poll identified about twenty six percent of the country as “angry” about the newly enacted health care legislation. Presumably, good portions of these citizens are members of (or sympathetic with) the Tea Party movement. The poll found ninety four percent of these people are white and 73 percent identify themselves as conservative.

Today the Post published some follow up interviews with these self-identified angry Americans. It turns out that health care reform is just the tip of their iceberg of complaints. Typical is this interview with a man from California:

“I grew up in the ’50s,” said Hugh Pearson, 63, a retired builder from Bakersfield, Calif. “That was a wonderful time. Nobody was getting rich, nobody was doing everything big. But it was ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ days, ‘Leave It to Beaver’-type stuff. Now we have all this MTV, expose-yourself stuff, and we have no morality left, not even by the legislators.”

Said a man from suburban Kansas:

“The tea party activists represent Middle America. They are the hardworking Americans who see their country eroding in front of their eyes,” said Chris Domsch of suburban Kansas City, Mo. He said he is an independent but has never backed a Democratic presidential candidate.

Now they are discovering that America is no longer “Leave it to Beaver”? Now they are seeing fundamental changes in America? Just where have these people been living since the 1950s? I suspect they were living in places like the Shenandoah Valley, or just Appalachia in general, where the populace is 95% or more white. Segregated into their nice, white suburban enclaves they must not have ventured out much into the rest of America. However, even in Appalachia and in the deep south, you must be obsessively myopic not to see the wrenching social, demographic and economic changes of these last decades.

Our manufacturing industry has largely vanished and most of our economy is now service jobs. Much of the higher wages that came with manufacturing jobs have disappeared as well. Few things epitomize America more today than Wal-Mart, where you celebrate your patriotism and American entrepreneurialism by buying foreign goods at discount prices from clerks who Wal-Mart will not even pay a living wage.

As for the social changes, did they sleep through the last fifty years? Blacks no longer stay at the back of the bus or drink from separate water fountains. The stay at home mother is almost extinct. In fact, women are close to overtaking men as a majority of the workforce (47.5%). As for all those immigrants, we’ve always been a nation of immigrants, it’s just that now their skin tends to have a darker hue. Aside from the color of their skin, their story is much like the poor white Irish and Polish immigrants from which I came. If you want to give a Tea Partier a heart attack, tell him about this prediction released today: in 2010, more babies in America will be born from minorities than from whites.

America has never been a static place. To the extent we lived in Pleasantville, it was because we kept the rabble out with strict zoning laws. However, that does not mean that our laws have kept up with the pace of social change. At some point, the need to accommodate different conditions and demographics demands actual change. Sometimes it happens in a relatively seismic fashion, like with health care reform. Ideally, the process would be nice and smooth. An informed and educated Congress would periodically look at these changing demographics and align new laws to accommodate them. Unfortunately, for the most part those who represent us have had their campaign coffers filled by the moneyed people who like the status quo.

Of course, this is America, so most of the legislative change that has occurred has been to help those who already wield a disproportionate amount of power. Seniors got prescription drug benefits. Wealthy people got huge tax cuts. Defense contractors got huge, open-ended contracts. Moreover, while giving out all these new benefits (largely during Republican administrations) hardly anyone’s taxes were raised. Then in 2008, it all came tumbling down in a credit collapse, which created double-digit unemployment. Six million Americans are so discouraged they do not even bother looking for work, and so are not counted as unemployed.

My strong suspicion is that had the economy not collapsed, these Tea Partiers and “angry” citizens would not be holding rallies, but would be happily remaining in blissful ignorance. It is only now that change became big enough that government could actually trying to address the needs of those who have actually been hurt by our policies of the last decades that some raise the socialism banner.

The fact is that America will not be a majority white country much longer. Hoot, holler, cry about socialism, tell us we must go back to a Leave it to Beaver country, but you cannot change these demographics. However, the United States has always been about disenfranchised or oppressed people making a better life for themselves. Through that unique American alchemy, they usually end up freer, more educated and with more money than where they came from. Throughout the years, this process has often been tumultuous. The fears expressed by Tea Partiers have expressed many times before in our history.

It should not be this way. America is a country of change. It is built into our DNA so unsurprisingly it results in MTV, Internet chat rooms and new ways to screw up your life. It has also resulted in amazing innovations, like the very same Internet many now fear but which was invented here in America and now drives a huge part of our economy. The approximately 26% of Americans who describe themselves as “angry” haven’t accepted this change, and cling tenaciously to a largely fictional notion of the way things were. Yet, if we could somehow turn back the clock, we would simply fall further behind the rest of the world, because they are not going back.

Would these same people who cling to the 1950s also want the racism, the homophobia, the paranoia, the plasticity and the pollution that came with it? Would they want to take their chances without modern antibiotics or a polio vaccine? Do they really think no one was fooling around back in the 1950s? That people weren’t suffering from the same vices back then as well? They may have deadened themselves with more prosaic addictions like alcohol, but America was just as unhappy then. Moreover, people like James Dean were showing their generation how to be rebellious. Back then, the politicians were just as crooked and unscrupulous. The infamous red baiting Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was an alcoholic. The 1950s also saw the rise of Richard M. Nixon, arguably our worst and most corrupted president.

America is morphing as it has many times in its more than two centuries as a country. By 2050, whites will no longer be in the majority. We are destined to be more multi-hued and integrated as a nation. That doesn’t mean America’s nature will change that much. We will certainly be larger in 2050 than we were in 1950, by a factor of two or three. America is haltingly and rather badly trying to figure out what social compact is needed for modern times since the old one clearly no longer fits. We expect that after all the hand wringing is done that we will emerge a more civilized and tolerant country.

 

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