Im walking through a hotel lobby in coal-field West Virginia as the coiffed media anchor breaks the news: Yeahs: 5, Nays: 4. In the course of a single, unexpected swing vote, America is one monumental step closer to health care for everybody.
A few fist pumps and a tear of jubilation later, I step out into the humid heat just ahead of a sad-faced, stoop-shouldered man muttering to no one in particular, This countrys gone to hell in a hand basket.
Its an occupational hazard, this interest in why people say what they say. Im already looking the guys way as I load the guitar case in the Scion. He catches my North Carolina plate and proceeds to tell me thats where hes from. Born and raised.
But now hes one year into unemployment with his benefits about to run out. I brace myself for a panhandle. But this is not a panhandle. This is another case of the nouveau poor hurling hurt into a five-year and counting economic void: I worked to make a life, lost it and I want somebody to know.
This fellow with the lined brow and missing teeth is not trolling for a five-spot. He just wants somebody, somewhere, to feel what its like to lose your place in the world. And if it cant be Barack Obama and the turncoat Justice that just green-lighted socialized medicine, it might as well be me.
Since the days of Lincolns aborted Reconstruction (and made most obvious in the case of FDR and his alphabet soup), progressive types have puzzled over the marginalized who resist, even attack policies and programs designed to restore their social dignity and increase their economic opportunities. Why in hell would those with the most to gain want to bite the hand that wants to feed them? Why in hell would a man broke and about to be broker rather face a future with limited or no health care and just take his chances?
Theory: Federalism. Even as liberals fist bump over a victory in both party ideology and its practical application, there is a seeming amnesia when it comes to the radical shift in power as evidenced by the 2010 Republican takeover of Congress a shift clearly driven by promises to eviscerate all things federal.
And then there is the pervasive Democratic temptation to underestimate what all this means to a Romney campaign already outperforming expectations. The longstanding conservative gospel of freedom in the form of states rights, judicial restraint and individualism was tailor-made to counter sweeping reforms on the scale of the Affordable Care Act.
Combined, this temptation to ignore true political zeitgeist and sell short the reverse cost of a true federalist victory could turn a June win into a November loss.
Every now and then the American body politic brews up a perfect storm of dysfunctional government, ideological polarization, economic meltdown and scapegoating. To our credit, the divisions end not in bloody coups but with a referendum. Often as not, its a referendum on the role of the federal government. Come November, the ballot will list two names. But if my fellow traveler from North Carolina and I are any indication, the vote may even be between two ways of being.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Raleigh, N.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2012
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