Government, Investment, Output

Digby’s got a post up, needs reading. As he does most every day. But this discussion about making our party the party of the common good has been on my mind a good long while.

I don’t mean to be dismissive. I think it’s important to embrace big ideas and big philosophy and reach for some inspiration. The Democrats have been issuing stultifying laundry lists for as long as I can remember and I couldn’t be happier that people are thinking in these terms. But I can’t help but feel that we always end up back at the same spot somehow. The unions, the womens groups, the civil rights groups, trial lawyers, consumer advocates — the whole array of narrow special interests being held responsible for the fact that half of this country really resents the hell out of minorities, women and working people getting a fair shake. And the Democrats continue to pay the political price for that resentment.

For too long now, we’ve been fed nothing but this resentment, until it’s become a kind of virus, these urban legends about some minority somewhere who’s not grateful enough for their lot in life and wants what’s rightfully “ours.” For years and years, we’ve voted on the basis of protecting our own against one or another of the invading hordes, be they communists, terrorists, gays or immigrants. The Republicans will never lose appealing to selfishness, to anger too petty to be called hatred, to the instinct that if it wasn’t for somebody else out there, we’d all be kings, we’d all be rich, we’d all be perfectly safe and wildly happy.

But. There’s a but. Follow along inside by clicking “Read More.”

I’ve long thought that the reason people have lost faith in government is not because it asks too much of them in this busy modern age but because it asks too little. Any professional fundraiser will tell you it’s easier to get time from people than money, easier to get an emotional investment than a checkbook opened. People have no personal investment in government anymore, they don’t feel themselves a part of it. We cheer or we rage from the sidelines but overall, we have utterly lost sight of the fact that we are our government, that the framers of our Constitution put us in charge. We feel powerless, distanced, and that powerlessness fuels this rage too easily channeled by selfish men into resentment of somebody, anybody, the bogeyman of the week.

Tena said something to me during a discussion on a crack den thread maybe a week ago, and I saved it because it rang so true to me:

I dunno, Athenae. Part of me thinks this culture is just about moribund from decadence. And I don’t mean pole dancers and hip hop lyrics. It’s a different kind of decadence – a kind of aimlessness that comes from having too much.

I’m lucky enough in my life to have friends from all generations, all economic strata, from people in their 80s with personal fortunes to kids in their 20s in college and out of it, waiting tables and writing poetry. And I can tell you the one thing I’ve learned in talking to all of them: those who are the most comfortable are also the most unhappy. Those who feel like they’ve got it covered, like they’re “done,” those are the ones looking around saying, “what the hell is it all worth?” and looking for something to be pissed off about.

Rich or poor, the happiest people I know are the people who are getting up, every day, and struggling for something. Not always money or status, but accomplishment, family, a cause, a goal, an award, a step forward or sideways or up. Those in the midst of work they’re consumed by and interested in and lit up with, no matter how much or how little they have, they’re the happiest people I know, the slowest to anger, the least likely to blame somebody else for their lot in life. They feel in control of their worlds, invested, active, and they inspire those around them to the same kind of life.

The easy answer to the dilemma Digby poses in his post about Tomasky’s essay is to say that we’ve got to get the half of America that the other half is pissed off at to vote, to the polls, that it’s one thing to mobilize an interest group to be interested and another to get them to vote, something people keep forgetting when conservative evangelicals whip up their mobs in a frenzy of hate, and why I continue to think this immigration issue is a much bigger danger to Democrats than most other people consider it to be.

But I think Tomasky’s right to be thinking bigger, and I think one of the things that’s just got to happen, if we want to even have some hope of retaining our national soul, is that we’ve got to start asking these questions:

Are you happier, having spent the last 25 years awash in anger and fear?

Are you safer, flinching every time a new danger flashes on your TV screen?

Are you in power, in control, of your life and your country?

It’s time to start asking JFK’s questions again, to remind people, especially of that generation, what it felt like to believe in something greater than yourself. What it felt like to give your time to something meaningful, instead of spending it watching TV. You know, that stupid fucking phrase is on a doily in every living room in America, “nobody ever died wishing they’d spent more time at work,” and it never fails to completely piss me off, because I don’t think anybody ever died wishing they’d spent more time sitting on their asses waiting for Survivor to start, but that’s what we’ve got now, devotion to leisure as a virtue in and of itself, and 20 minutes of daytime TV will convince anybody who thinks I’m crazy that that’s exactly the case.

Our government asks too little of us. Give us your money, let us sweep the streets and deliver your mail, and don’t think too hard about it until every four years or every two if you’re especially on the ball, we ask you to decide who you loathe the least. Politicians appeal to us based on who asks us to work the least, and then pondering why so few people like them, so few approve. They don’t ask for investment, for time or care or emotion, most of them don’t. Sit back, let us take care of it, go shopping, and hate Muslims and gays. Our press plays into this, too: don’t go outside your comfort zone, stay in your “safe” neighborhood, travel to the amusement and then go home, or a shark will eat you, a crazy homeless man will kidnap your lovely blonde child.

We are the nation of the New Deal, the Golden Gate Bridge, the moon shot, the transcontinental railroad. We’ll give what is asked of us. The Red Cross makes an appeal on TV and people give millions, and then … they stop. We donated our five bucks, and we’re done. What if they asked more? I don’t know how you turn a nation’s attention, the way we used to be able to do, to one thing, to one goal, to the common good Tomasky writes about. I do know that you can’t get something from people by sitting back and waiting for them to give it on their own. You have to ask. You have to tell them their work and their blood and their investment will mean something, will make a difference, will have an effect. You have to ask something of them.

Our government asks us for nothing, so that’s exactly what they get.