Most everyone around here knows my politics are center left, what I call pragmatic. It means that legislative proposals have to satisfy some simple questions. Will they promote the good of the community? How? Will they work? How? Can we pay for them? How? I like politics, and I don’t have a problem with government, big or small, as long as the political process works with integrity to hammer out policies meeting the test of these simple questions within the context of our democratic traditions and ideals. I want to make that clear up front to avoid questionable labeling about where I stand as this brief essay continues.
A number of my well educated Liberal/Progressive friends are arrogantly dismissive of local tea party types as ignorant, unintelligent, yokels unwilling, maybe unable, to see what they see as the obvious political good. Rudely huffy about the far right’s intransigence, they act as if it would help to speak slower and louder so the bumpkins will get it. It borders on contempt, and it seeps into the awareness of all those yokels in ways that only strengthen a mule like stubbornness to defend their tea party ways. Those on the left simply cannot understand how or why the tea party and Trump forces have gained so much strength among those likely to be hurt most by the policies they support. It doesn’t make any sense.
It does make sense, and liberal/progressives had better pay attention. The “Brexit” vote points in the direction that the American electorate may go, and Steven Erlanger did an outstanding job of making that clear in his June 24 NYT article in which he examined the angry, confused, deeply distrustful mood of an enormous sector of the British electorate against the political elite of both major parties. The vote, he said, “displayed a major fissure between Britain's metropolitan elite and the rest of the country, essentially pitting rich versus poor…” It is not inappropriate to note that it also revealed a deep divide between those with college degrees and those without. The dynamics are eerily similar to our own.
I was thinking about that on a long flight home from Europe earlier this week. With time on my hands, and out of curiosity, I listened to the Hank Williams, Jr. album “It’s About Time.” Country music in general, and more particularly artists such as Williams, speaks about, to, and for a sector of our own electorate that is angry, confused, deeply distrustful of the political elite. Never mind that they are mostly white, less likely to be college educated, and definitely not members of the sophisticated metropolitan set. They are intent on making what they believe to be their last stand to keep America they way they want it to be, and they may very well succeed. Forget about the bugaboo of right wing talk radio. It’s music that speaks to the soul of this sector of the electorate. Three songs on the album stood out as exemplars of what I mean: “Club USA”; “God and Guns”; “Wrapped Up, Tangled Up in Jesus.”
“Club USA” celebrates the lucky ones who live in the land of the free, who believe in the American dream. Everyone wants in. It’s paradise. It should not go unnoticed that clubs are exclusive. If you’re not in, you’re out. No one joins a club without being examined for admission so that those who are not like us or don’t agree with us are kept out. We want the right kind of people in our clubs, and that goes for Club USA.
Who are the right kind of people for Club USA? At the very center, the core of what is true and good, are the hard working men and women with real jobs in factories and on farms. Their hands are dirty, their muscles tired. They drink beer, love their children, their country, and their guns. Outside the core that is true and good are heartless bosses, people in offices who don’t have real jobs, bankers, bureaucrats, and city people who live in expensive high-rises or behind country club fences. They are leeches prospering off the hard working lives of folks with real jobs.
“God and Guns” expresses the belief that forces outside Club USA are intent on taking away the guns and God of Club USA members, and it’s God and guns that keep them strong. “It’s what the country was founded on, and you might as well give up and run if we let them take our God and guns.” Who is it that wants to take them away is unclear, but they are represented by the political elite in much the same way that Brexit voters rebelled against those whom they identified as the political elite. Curiously, “Wrapped up, Tangled up in Jesus” weaves this entire worldview into a faith centered on Jesus and the bible that, at least for me, cannot be reconciled with Jesus as revealed in scripture, nor with scripture itself. Nevertheless, it's a deeply held faith standing firm against the assaults of science, secularism, humanism, and naysayers. It is the civil religion of Club USA, and you can’t come in without adopting it as your own.
These sentiments need to be taken seriously because they are strongly held by highly motivated people able to win elections and influence policy. That can be no more clearly shown than by the ability of Club USA members to shut down the legislative process in Congress, and nurture their politics of polarization in states and localities. I’m not sure what to do about it, but suggest conversation in which the fears and desires of Club USA members are taken seriously and given respect. Digging down a little farther may unearth even more important core values that can be given new life and strength by centrist politicians and policies, while at he same time expanding the benefits of those more important core values to a more diverse America. It would mean dramatic curtailing of plutocratic power and privilege – not an easy thing to do.
What about the current crop of presidential candidates? Trump has tapped into Club USA with a deft hand. He’s not as dumb as he appears. He may be a plutocrat who has no intention of making life better for Club USA members, but as a master of propaganda he knows how to con them into supporting him. Bernie, an honest person, has come close to founding his own version of the club. His politics may be over on the left, but he understands how to speak to and for angry, confused, deeply distrustful people who want their own version of Club USA. The thing is, it’s still a club with all the restrictions and exclusions that go along with clubs. Hillary is what? She is the icon of everything the hated political elite stand for, yet she may be exactly the right person to navigate between Charybdis and Scylla. As a politician she reminds me of LBJ: shrewd, able, experienced, tough, and not very likable. Throw in a little FDR and a dash of DDE and she might do well for the country. Britain’s Cameron couldn’t do it because he was blind to the extent of grass roots disaffection. Maybe Hillary will learn from his mistakes. We shall see.