There they all were on the Sunday-morning chatfests, droning on about the anger of the American people as shown by the election in Massachusetts of a pickup truck to the U.S. Senate — ever ready, as pundits are, to take one good story and extrude it into a national trend portentous with meaning. One could draw other conclusions from that election — the importance of actually campaigning, for one, and not vacationing in the Caribbean — but OK, maybe anger was a factor. Nobody looks on the marathon health-care debate as a noble chapter in political science. No legislator is going to have a hospital named for him in honor of his heroic work. (Maybe a parking ramp.)
Meanwhile, one-sixth of our population is without health insurance, and Republicans have decided that defeating Mr. Obama is more important than the welfare of 50 million Americans: Let them die and decrease the surplus population and be quick about it. That’s the long and the short of it. And now they have won a Senate seat in a Democratic stronghold and feel revived and are smelling the bacon and looking forward to November.
This is good. The midterms will require Republicans to decide who they are. Are they interested in unemployment, health care, banking regulation and the long-term health of the planet? Or are they just angry that a non-citizen and practicing Muslim got elected president so he could send death panels around to enslave us in the chains of Marxism?
Running on anger is not such a great idea. For one thing, it’s hard to sustain if, God forbid, the economy springs back. And as Republicans well know, government does not change when you yell at it. The world doesn’t run on slogans, it runs on paperwork. Federal agencies are full of old Reaganauts and Bushites in civil service positions who went to Washington with high ideals of making government smaller, but government can’t get smaller, there being so many of them, and these conservative ideologues gradually turn into weary old bureaucrats with dandruff on their shoulders, same as the liberal ones.
Populism is a stiff liquor (Power to the People, Down with the Meritocracy, Into the Tumbrils with the Elitist Media), but in the end it fails to give you useful directions. In North Dakota, in the ’30s, the populist Non-Partisan League took power and put their folks into state jobs, including running the insane asylum in Jamestown, and the poor inmates suffered at the hands of the People. So did universities suffer at the hands of students who took over campuses back in the day. It was fulfilling to sit in the president’s big armchair and smoke his cigars, but then what? They had no idea what.
Be as anti-elitist as you like, but when the surgeon comes in to open up your skull to see what that big dark spot on the CT scan was, you don’t want him to be wearing a humorous T-shirt (“Hey It IS Brain Surgery”) and eating Jujubes. You board the DC-10 to London and you’d like to see a lean guy with a military-style crew cut, an overachiever, not a guy with hair in his eyes who is really, really into his own music. Your life may depend on an arrogant elitist who happens to know what he’s doing.
I’m in Peoria as I write this, having just left Sheboygan, two factory towns (Caterpillar and Kohler) hit hard by the recession and by the southward migration of manufacturing, with plenty of FOR LEASE signs on industrial buildings. And yet I haven’t met anyone here who imagines that Obama is the cause of it all. There was a previous administration, during which regulation of banks and the securities trade was negligible, that had a hand in it, too.
Meanwhile, the lights are still on, beer is still coming out of the taps, and the genial gentlemen at the bar are talking about a big bump in corporate profits in 2010, maybe 25 percent. My heart was gladdened by an official-looking sign in the Milwaukee airport, just beyond the TSA checkpoint, hanging over where you put your shoes and coat back on and stuff your laptop back in the case: The sign said, “Recombobulation Area.” The English language gains a new word. Recombobulate, America. Pull yourself together, tie your shoelaces, and if your pilot is wearing a button that says “To hell with the FAA,” wait for the next flight.