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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On anger, and the divisions that cripple us

Detroit, summer of 2010
A new poll this morning from Newsweek/The Daily Beast confirms what most of us have already known – the moribund economy has left many Americans angry at the world, and it's affecting everything from personal relationships to sleep patterns (I’ve seen 4 a.m. myself more times than I care to count). But it also reveals a deep crevasse between how Americans live, and how Washington responds.

Overall, 50 percent of the poll’s respondents thought President Obama has no significant plan to balance the budget, and 58 percent said the Republicans are equally stymied, and just trying to blame it all on Obama (presumably for crass political reasons). In other words, most Americans think our political leadership has no idea how to fix this. But more than two out of three believed raising taxes on the wealthiest is a step in the right direction. That isn’t going to happen here in this democracy of ours, mind you, but the will of the masses is there.

The poll also found that nearly one in three Americans said their financial straits left them feeling angry (I would have thought higher), and about half said they felt nervous. “Could the anger fueling the Arab Spring soon bring club-wielding protesters to America?” asked political strategist Douglas Schoen, who wrote the piece. Not likely, for a variety of reasons. And it’s an irresponsible line to toss out there, sounding more like a bogus Wolf Blitzer teaser before a CNN commercial break than a reasoned reading of the situation.

And that kind of breathless speculation erodes what otherwise were some pretty significant findings, because we are becoming more and more angry. And we are, as often happens in our history, turning our anger against each other while political figures use it to push agendas. For instance, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, in the GOP half of the Saturday morning political cartoons (the weekly addresses by the president and someone from the other half of the two-party tango), argued that unions were at fault for the lack of job growth.

Please. It’s a transparently false position, and the kind of red herring discourse that should fuel even more anger. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2010 union membership nationwide was at 11.9 percent, down from 12.3 percent the previous year. And that is buoyed by unions representing public employees. The rate for private sector workers – the realm Alexander was addressing – was 6.9 percent, hardly the kind of power that would preclude an entrepreneur from opening or expanding a business.

Despite those anemic numbers, Alexander argued that union strength forces capitalists to create jobs overseas. Wrong. Federal policies that have enriched corporations by letting them fire U.S. workers and replace them with labor in lower-wage countries are what has driven jobs overseas, and killed the American middle class. If the unions had the kind of strength that people like Alexander say they fear it does, this would never have happened. It’s not unions that are sending jobs overseas, it is corporate executives and federal lawmakers who put corporate wealth ahead of community health.

So let’s make sure during these dark days that we direct our anger at the right folks, and not each other. The other day a friend on Facebook, whose daughter was rejected for much-needed financial aid for college, responded with a race-based post (she’s white) about people of color getting more government support than white people. In her moment of frustration she vented, in effect, sideways, rather than throwing her anger on the people who created the conditions: Elected leaders and the corporate powers that have excessive influence on how they vote.

Which brings me to this absurd theme coursing through parts of the electorate that because “my private sector job doesn’t give me the benefits that government workers get” that the government workers should be forced to give up theirs. No. The answer is that the private sector employers should restore those benefits. To bring government employees’ wages and benefits down to the level of the private sector continues this bizarre erosion of the caliber of American life. We won’t rebuild the middle class by pushing more workers further down the economic ladder. We rebuild the middle class by raising those from the lower economic levels up the ladder. And, dare I argue, drag some of the wealthy down a few rungs.

But it takes political will to do that. And, even with a former community organizer in the White House, there’s not much will in Washington to make life better for the poor, the working class, the middle class or average American neighborhoods, now ravaged by a housing crisis that was created by lack of oversight over the greed-mongers on Wall Street. And so we seethe. But do we act?

No. We watch “American Idol.” And maybe think think about Steve Earle's "America v. 6.0":
Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago
Our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay
Yeah, well maybe that wasn't exactly what they was thinkin'
Version six-point-oh of the American way
But hey we can just build a great wall around the country club
To keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through
Yeah, I realize that ain't exactly democratic, but it's either them or us and
And it's the best we can do.

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