The wrecking ball
Americans have different views about who wields the wrecking ball.
In the wake of the financial collapse and bailouts of 2008 and 2009, conservatives concluded that the federal government, with President Obama at the controls, was bringing a wrecking ball to the American economy, burdening the nation with debt, doling out special favors for business, intruding into our private lives with the creation of Obamacare. Obama, as they saw it, was taking a wrecking ball to the American way of life.
One of the significant accomplishments of Republicans during the recent government shutdown was that they convinced many Americans that the more dangerous wrecking ball was wielded by Republicans. Their fanatical aversion to government had led them actually to wreck it, at least temporarily. The National Institutes of Health, the national parks, the FDA, the Pentagon, the Department of Agriculture — all of it was hobbled, and stories soon emerged of frustrated citizens unable to gain entry to Yellowstone or the World War II Memorial in Washington.
It turned out that we did need a government. Taking a wrecking ball to the entire edifice in order to dismantle the wing labeled Obamacare was a costly exercise in futility.
It may be that one of the best ways to understand the points of view of other people is to figure whom they hate or fear the most. One of the significant populist rabble-rousers of the mid-20th century was Gov. George Wallace of Alabama who inveighed against what he called “pointy-headed intellectuals” and “briefcase-toting bureaucrats.” This is the sort of resentful, anti-elitist rhetoric that has become the norm in the angry precincts of talk radio and in the red districts of congressmen who entertained the idea of crashing the world economy by allowing the United States to default.
These conservatives resent the establishment media, by which they mean the TV networks (except Fox), PBS, NPR, The New York Times. They fear politicians who they believe intend to make America weak and cater to moochers who depend on unemployment or food stamps. They are at once resentful of elites and deferential to authority — the authority of big corporations, for example. Thus, climate change is a seen as a plot hatched by “pointy-headed intellectuals” to curb the power of oil and coal companies.
On the other side, people believe that the biggest threat comes from those who would undermine the authority of the federal government and its power to do what must be done in a modern society — all the bureaucratic functions that ground to a halt during the shutdown, including the pricing of crops and the surveillance of disease. Further, this threat challenges the very idea of science and the ability of society to come to terms with realities such as climate change and the environmental poisons that are the product of industrial activity.
Liberals see the greater threat coming from big money working its way from corporations through interest groups to corrupt the political system. Liberals also distrust elites, but the elites they fear are the Wall Street tycoons, the industrialists with open wallets and the conservative media empires that rouse suspicion and resentment at the grass roots. Liberals are aware of the elements of racism that inspire hatred of any government program that seeks to redress economic inequalities.
When we talk about polarization, it is to talk about the hardening of these bitterly held preconceptions about our fellow Americans. We all believe we have grounds for believing as we do. But when we talk about overcoming polarization, it is to talk about shaking ourselves free of these preconceptions — to recognize that commonalities exist that allow us to move closer together.
After this latest government shutdown, our differences may harden or people may look for commonalities. Each side will be looking for give from the other and will be unlikely to move until they see it. Those for whom compromise is a dirty word may be left out. Or they may continue to paralyze our political system. We’ll see.