Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tea Party anger and ending the government shutdown

An Ethical Musings reader sent me the following comments in response to my last post, Tell Congress to fund the government NOW:

As you point out in this piece, when the minority is defeated, majority rules in a democracy. However, that system relies on the acceptance of those rulings by the minority, such as your continuing to pay taxes to a government that is using them to fund ends with which you disagree.

My question in the current situation is why the Tea Party people feel so angry – I know that it’s common to say they’ve been brainwashed, haven’t got brains, etc. But something lies beneath their willingness to believe what they believe.

Is it just their sense that their world is vanishing? Is it an attempt to restore something they’ve lost? If a sizeable minority is unhappy, they can in fact disrupt the system.

Why are they so willing to believe that Obamacare is evil? Why do the Koch brothers think and act the way they do instead of lolling on some island in the sun? Or our own Art Pope?

My theory is that the patriarchal world is now not just eroded, but rejected by the majority. For those who still live as “ladies and gentlemen,” this is really a disaster. A father isn’t ‘head of the family’ anymore; a mother isn’t respected as she should be; old age is not deferred to; children are not respectful of their elders. The modern trappings – mostly electronic – of our time mitigate against courtesy, good manners, and respect. “I don’t get no respect” used to be a joke... wondering what you think of all this!

The comment raises some excellent questions. As implied in the comment, ad hominem attacks – an attack directed against the person rather than the substance of the argument – against the Tea Party are wrong, for moral and logical reasons. Morally, Tea Party members are humans; demeaning or demonizing them diminishes the image of God that is in them, as in all humans. Furthermore, because ad hominem attacks fail to address substantive issues, ad hominem attacks often suggest a more logical, substantial basis for disagreeing is lacking.

I do not know why so many Tea Party members are so angry. Perhaps some of the anger stems from frustration that achievements, for which they worked long and hard, are now slipping from their grasp, or seem likely to do so. When the housing bubble burst, many middle class Americans lost money. Greta Mortenson's book, Reckless Endangerment, chronicles the unethical, frequently illegal, mortgage lending practices that created the housing bubble. Other economic changes, including the demise of much American manufacturing and the inability or unwillingness of corporations to honor their financial commitments to long-term employees and retirees, have also placed the middle class in economic jeopardy. People who bought into the American dream are now increasingly realizing that the promise of hard work guaranteeing economic security was more hype than truth. For the first time in many generations, the economic prospects of future generations seem dimmer than were the prospects of current generations. Additionally, as I have argued in other Ethical Musings' posts, the underlying economic structures are changing because of technological changes, even as underlying economic structures changed in the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions.

Concurrently, the United States is changing demographically. As you note, people who once felt in control and privileged because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or heritage have to cope with less status and power in a nation that is becoming more diverse. Caucasians, within twenty years, will be a minority (Thanks be to God!). Numerous traditional values – think about the Civil Rights movement with its ramifications for race, gender, and sex, the post-Depression social welfare programs, etc. – face challenges (Thanks be to God!). We are increasingly an urban nation that lives on the coasts while clinging to cherished vestiges of a nineteenth century rural ethos. Our political structures, especially those of the federal government, give disproportionate power to people who live in rural, lightly populated states, further exacerbating conflict and feelings of disenfranchisement.

Meanwhile, many Americans have enjoyed the illusion of living in largely uninterrupted domestic tranquility and prosperity for centuries; they have thus created a culture shaped by expectations of continuing tranquility and prosperity. That this culture does not match reality for numerous Americans (e.g., Native Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people of color for most periods, the working poor, etc.) has not destroyed the myth. However, in living memory, events such as the 1930s Depression, the 2008 Great Recession, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the 1960s social upheavals have fractured the myth. On a positive note, the myth can engender industriousness and hope. One unfortunate, unintended consequence of the myth is that people can easily forget a key theme of Hobbes's Leviathan, i.e., people need government to establish peace and order, for without government human passions will rule, making both tranquility and prosperity impossible. At least some Tea Party members and libertarian kindred spirits, would do well to re-read Hobbes.

Finally, I think many Americans – Tea Party members and others – increasingly feel disenfranchised by the government and consequently they feel angry. The federal government's size and complexity combined with the remoteness of our elected representatives, a remoteness shaped by both the ever-increasing number of constituents and the exploding cost of winning office, contribute to that sense of disenfranchisement.

Christian ethics teach that government has two over-arching purposes: to promote the people's welfare (the common good) and to protect them from evil. Shutting down the federal government achieves neither of those goals. Religious people can constructively promote citizens reengaging with civil society, championing the common good over self-interest (this includes honoring the government's financial obligations), and advocating for the most vulnerable.

No community – civil, ecclesial, or familial – thrives when a minority attempts issues ultimatums. The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) certainly has many flaws, some identifiable and others that will become obvious in time. Nevertheless, Obamacare is the law and the way to amend (or even repeal) it is through the normal legislative process, not through ultimatums that disrupt and diminish the common good.

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