Monday, December 14, 2009

Hanging On By Their Fingernails

My friend Brian has been thinking about what makes some of us tea-baggers and some of us not.

I don’t personally know any tea-baggers, but I know a lot of people who lean in that direction. Young or old, they all seem to have one thing in common, that being that they’ve barely made it into the middle class, and they are hanging on by their fingernails. They can see and understand that this is not the America that they knew, or if younger, the one they were promised, but they don’t understand why that is. They have to believe that their tenuous grasp of the lower rungs of the middle class is due to the fact that they are smarter, work harder, and plan better then those people they see on the news, forced into bankruptcy by a health crisis or unable to find insurance, affordable or not. They believe that somehow having a job, not having credit card debt, not living beyond their means, and having fifty grand in the bank insures them against the circumstances “those” people find them in. They simply don’t want to face the fact that a job loss, sudden serious illness, hell, even a car accident with an uninsured motorist could leave them in the same boat. They don’t understand that a cancer diagnosis or sudden stroke could leave them unemployed and wipe out that fifty grand cushion in a couple of weeks, if not days. In order to get through today and get out of bed tomorrow they have to believe that somehow they are better then those people they see on the news. “Those” people were irresponsible, didn’t plan, overspent, or simply don’t want to work hard like us. “Those” people expect the government to take care of them, they expect a free ride off our hard work.

The odd thing is that fundamentally, tea-baggers and those of the other persuasion — those who read blogs like this — basically want the same thing. We all want to know that if we work hard, obey the rules, and pay our bills that things will be okay. The difference between “them” and “us” is that if they allow themselves to accept that it was the people they put their trust in, the people they championed who led us to this point, then everything they believe in is…wrong. And they just can’t do that. It’s like being married to someone for thirty years and waking up one day to find out that they’ve emptied the bank account, haven’t paid the mortgage or other bills for months, and they’ve run off with your best friend.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with their fundamental beliefs. Sure you can argue about minority rights, gay marriage, gun control, and other issues, but there’s nothing wrong with their basic view of government…less interference, lower taxes, fiscal conservatism, and a strong military. What they just don’t get, what they can’t allow themselves to believe, is that the people who championed those causes, the people they thought were going to lead us to Reagan’s “shining city on the hill”, instead reached into their pockets and stole everything. Jobs and opportunities have gone offshore, equity has evaporated, security, both personal financial security and freedom from overseas threats has evaporated, and someone has to be blamed, someone has to pay, and…it has to be “those other guys” that are responsible. To admit otherwise is to believe that everything you’ve put your faith in for the last three decades is a fraud, and that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow. And now those “other guys” want to mess with our health care!

When it comes to health care, those who have it and haven’t had to depend on it for a major crisis view it as one of the few dependable things in their life. They don’t want anyone messing with it. Think about your own reaction when you hear that your employer is changing plans. Even before you see what’s being offered your reaction is usually apprehension…will they cover my prescriptions, will I have to find a new doctor, will the co-pays and deductibles mean yet another budget adjustment? Combine that with moving to a government plan when everyone you trust has told you “government bad!” for the last thirty years and you immediately see re, and can’t even hear what’s being said because the voice in your head is screaming “NO!”

So what’s the answer? Well, what do you do when some loon is standing in the middle of the intersection screaming at cars going by? You go around them. We can’t appease them, can’t compromise with them, can’t even talk to them, so we move while the numbers are on our side. They’ll go to their graves railing about the government takeover of health care, and how much better things used to be, and their kids will grow up with it, shaking their heads at their parents ravings and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Thanks, Brian; your insight — as always — is spot-on.

And he’s right: according to all the statistics, I too should be a tea-bagger — at least in the political term. Based on my income, I’m barely middle class, I have concerns about my job and its future (I have found that just because I work for a branch of the government doesn’t mean permanent job security), and my health insurance just went through a complete change of carrier. And on top of that, I have the added burden of being a gay man in a society that is still deciding whether or not I’m worthy of full citizenship. So why am I not out there carrying signs and carrying on?

It’s probably because I have never — or at least for the last forty years — completely bought into a political party’s line. I’ve never thought that there was one candidate who would become the Saviour of the Western World, and I’ve always viewed the promises they’ve made as just that: promises loaded down with fine print and caveats: your mileage may vary. What’s also interesting is that there is a growing sentiment in the progressive community that they too got led down the garden path by Barack Obama, and they’re suddenly realizing that, lo and behold, he is not the Saviour of the Western World but just another mortal man with incredible political skills. Well, no kidding.

The lesson here for all of us — tea-baggers included — is that if you place all your hopes and dreams on the performance of someone else, you are bound to be disappointed, both in them for not being perfect, and yourself for allowing yourself to buy into it. And if you find yourself hanging on by your fingernails, it’s too late to blame someone else for how you got there.