Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Identity struggle.

The government shut down has little and everything to do with the Affordable Care Act.  Certainly Tea Party extremists in the House want to hold hostage what is an important but still deeply compromised and thus modest "reform" of our healthcare system.  But what concerns them has much more to do with the nation's identity than any individual program.  The battle going on in Washington is said by some to be a philosophical one about the size and role of government.  Traditionally Republicans have wanted it smaller, Democrats larger.  Another way of stating that is, less rather than more engaged.  And there is something to be said for that explanation, but it's not new and, in my view, secondary in this instance.  Healthcare, the size and role of government are not at the core of the current crisis.  It is rather who we are and who we are going to be as a nation.

This is something I've written about in previous posts and in a profound sense it has more to do with changing demographics than the parties' philosophical differences per se.  The idea that we are a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation, one that has taken on mythical proportions over the years, has been undermined by facts on the ground.  If current trends persist, and there is no reason to believe they won't, a white majority America may be history by 2042.  That unnerves many people.  I didn't use the word "mythical" in connection with our WASP identity lightly.  Myths are hugely powerful and to be confronted with the fact that our myth is just that or that it is out of sync with reality can be earthshattering.  That's exactly what is happening across the land, especially in places where the myth translated into an assumed way of life, way of the world.

Memories, especially in this history-resistant "young" country are short, but many of our presidents were subjected to out-of-proportion visceral hatred.  That was true for two of our greatest chief executives, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, but also more recently for Bill Clinton.  In some cases, this hatred was rooted in uncertain times — the Civil War for Lincoln and the Depression for FDR — but it also was a manifestation of unease with a leader who "is not like us".  Clinton, despite his being both white and Protestant, just wasn't accepted as being a legitimate WASP.  That lack of acceptance into the real American tribe haunted him from his first day in office to his last — from Whitewater to the impeachment they tried to force him from office.  And illegitimate is a word that comes to mind with the current incumbent of the White House.

Shameful and painful as it is, it's hard to overlook that much of the opposition to Barack Obama — a man who himself suggested has a "strange name" — is the embodiment of that myth-crashing other that so unnerves a portion of Americans who see their old ways slipping away.  As I, and others, have noted before, race plays a huge rule in this drama.  For many in the South, but not only there, Obama is a recall to Reconstruction, a moment they didn't witness personally but one that had an indelible place in the history that they do take seriously.  Reconstruction was a symbol of defeat and disgrace but also, and significantly, a loss (albeit temporarily) of power.  The slave became the master.  What is a man like Obama, a man who looks like that, doing in the WHITE House?

Race and bigotry are at play here and some of that may be personal, but I'd suggest that the black man Obama is as much a metaphor as an individual.  His elevation to the highest office in the land tokens the seismic demographic change that is altering a balance of power that had been assumed as a given.  His presence is a reminder of an increasing number of Latinos, Asians and others in our midst, some of whom maddingly insist on speaking to each other in their birth-tongues.  He is a symbol of those people who are "ruining the neighborhood".  It is the kind of mentality that precipitated the late 1950s "white flight" out Newark New Jersey where I grew up.  And it is the same phenomenon in reverse recounted by Tom Friedman in his October 2ns NY Times column. "Lily-white" Republican stronghold neighborhoods are experiencing counter national trend growth as more whites move in to reinforce their unquestioned majority.  It is a coalescing of this kind of whiteness that gives Tea Party legislators license of "go for it" without fear of losing their jobs.

And they are not alone.  Increasingly all of us are moving into neighborhoods of the like-minded.  It's doubtful that I would have relocated from New York to, lets day Charlotte where our ultra-Conservative governor was mayor.  Chapel Hill's politics and demographics mirror my Upper West Side of Manhattan making it the perfect bubble enclave for someone of my ethnicity and political views.  Indeed, the idea of America, the integrated melting pot, is almost if not equally as much a myth as America the WASP nation.

What's happening in Washington may seem irresponsible, and it is, but taking the long view it is also understandable.  The Tea Party folks are still a small minority; indeed a fringe group, and will likely remain so.  At the moment gerrymandering, probably far more than Citizens United, has given them extraordinary power.  Holding the threat of a primary challenge over their fellow Republicans heads and the Speakership over Boehner's, they have essentially immobilized the House.  One could argue, and I do, that they are taking what is in effect a "Custer's last stand".  The battle is fierce and bloody.  Of course, Custer fought against Native Americans and ultimately his side won the war if not the battle.  Immediate history was on his side.  That's not the case today, which probably accounts for both the fierceness and seemingly irrational stance being taken.

All of this poses significant dangers for the immediate future especially, as has been pointed out so consistently, with regard to the debt ceiling.  But it doesn't bode well for the months and even years beyond.  The struggle to hold on will not end with the inevitable end of the current shut down.  Desperate people, especially those who see their home and family under threat, which is what we're talking about, don't give up easily.  The broader economic inequality that pervades in the land may provide them with short-term allies in the near term.  There are many in the greater population who are also feeling disenfranchised, even if in a different way, and who are equally stressed.  Questioning our government and institutions is something that crosses ideological right-left lines.  That will not change so long as the government we have is failing many of us in so many ways.  In fact, certainly on the House side, it's an embarrassment.  

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