Wednesday, October 12. 2011
Went to the DMV today, which remains most people's prime case example of how inefficient and rude government can be. Simple task: needed to get my driver's license renewed. When I got there I was pointed toward a queue the length of one wall then wrapped around another: twenty-some people ahead of me. Wasn't too bad: I could lean against the wall, and I had a book, although I ran out of book in the hour or so it took me to get to the head of the line. The guy a couple slots ahead of me was talkative. A guy with a gray ponytail limped up behind me, and the two started comparing army records. The guy behind me offered to save him a slot if he wanted to sit down, and he did. The two kept yakking for much of the stretch -- mostly touching on politics. The guy ahead of me declared himself to be "a big Ron Paul supporter." The ponytail guy was psyched by Occupy Wall Street. The Ron Paul guy declared them to be "commies" but cut some slack for the crippled vet. Both agreed that politicians are crooks, that money has changed everything, but the Ron Paul guy was fixated on taxes whereas ponytail thought the government should work better.
Occasionally a woman behind me talked about the economy. She pointed out that when she was young she couldn't wait to get her driver license and get a job and get out of her parents' house, but her grown son isn't interested in any of that. On the other hand, she lives in a small town and there are no jobs -- nothing positive to draw her son out into the world. All these people could have understood their problems better, but there was no mistaking that those problems are real, and little sense that any of them are likely to be solved anytime soon. There once was a time when people would think twice before talking politics with total strangers -- same for religion and various other uncomfortable topics. Not now. Politics is everywhere, and everything is politicized -- much like the 1960s, at least for my generation back then.
Watched Charlie Rose tonight and he had on one person pulled from the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and three left-leaning academic sympathizers -- I guess Rose figured he was wet blanket enough to dampen the enthusiasm. It reminded me again of the 1960s: the movement rep was an ordinary guy who couldn't really articulate the issues, but deep down knew someone has to make a stand, otherwise we're going to keep getting rolled over. On the other hand, Paul Krugman, Marshall Ganz, and Jared Bernstein had plenty of understanding of what's wrong. But they still had problems explaining it all: the problem they faced is that problems are so vast and interconnected that it's hard to know where to start. Money in politics is obviously a big part of the problem, but it's not just that. The problem with money is that it's allowed the rich to tilt the levers of government (and privately owned institutions the public depends on, like the media) to make them richer even at the expense of everyone else.
This actually is a problem that many of us recognized long ago. We have even understood that such increasing inequality is unstable and unviable: that the longer it goes on and the worse it gets, the more damage will be done not just to individuals at the bottom but to the entire social fabric. Yet it's been virtually impossible to get people's attention over such an "abstract" concept. But there really is nothing abstract about it: just start picking people at random from the 99% and you'll see real effects. And now it turns out that many of those people would do something about their plight if they only knew they could. That's the door that the demonstrations have opened, and down at the DMV I could feel the pent-up energy searching for some way to express itself.
One reason I see this resembling the 1960s is that when you think about it you'll realize that the new left won the culture wars back then: civil rights, getting out of Vietnam, abolishing the draft, women's liberation (everything from abortion to equal pay), clean air and water, consumer protection. The problem was that we didn't build the institutional framework to consolidate power to protect (and extend) those gains -- but one key reason that didn't happen was that we distrusted and never grew comfortable with power. So we left the rich too rich and the military-security state too well dug in -- the bases for the right's counterrevolution -- and we lost focus and, at least for a while, just lapsed and enjoyed the better world we had made.
But there's at least one important difference between the movement now and in the 1960s. Back then the US was a relatively affluent, relatively equitable, and much more idealistic society, so much of the movement generously fought for other people's rights. (That at least was the stereotype, although I for one always had personal reasons for my politics.) But things have gotten so much worse that now we all have "skin in the game," and that raises the political stakes -- the need, the resolve, the demand that change be real and secure.
Update: Let me add that the reason the new left issues won out was because they were intellectually persuasive, in large part because they tapped into basic ideas about equality, freedom, justice, and sustainability. The right has worked hard to erode those values, to cheapen and deprecate them, substituting greed and self-interest, order, and faith that if you just follow your betters all will be well. Those are shabby arguments, for as we clearly see now, they do not bode well.
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