ON POINT: Old wine in a new bottle

By Stephen B. Young

The Daily Record Newswire

Politics for many Republicans seems to have become mostly an emotional pursuit in which facts and prudence and building coalitions are just not germane to their concerns. And such emotions are most often driven by the dark side of human willfulness -- fear of loss, threats to identity, anger and such like.

I can say with confidence that this year's politics will be a continuation of what we experienced in 2011.

The driving force in our politics has not been and will not be the establishment but rather populism, both Tea Party populism and Occupy populism.

Barack Obama ran for president as a quasi-populist but governed as a member of the political establishment and thus lost much of his appeal. He did not take on Wall Street; he did not support his commission's recommendations to confront our national debt; he took the insurance industry's approach to financing health care; his foreign policies stayed within familiar norms, especially with regard to Israel and its American supporters, and with respect to Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran.

More responsive to populist needs were the Tea Party activists and the Occupy Wall Street flowering of protests.

The Tea Party pushed American conservatism in more libertarian directions, away from its prior focus on the culture war over sexuality and family values. Thus Ron Paul moved to the fore in Iowa polls before the caucuses. He was speaking well to the feelings of the moment.

Libertarianism is a version of populism; it says "Stay out of my life!" and waves the rattlesnake flag proudly proclaiming "Don't Tread on Me." Government becomes the enemy because it seeks to regulate my choices and tell me what to do. It threatens my sense of autonomy and self-hood.

More fundamentally, such government gives me, the ordinary person, no place for personal ambition, no vision of justice that speaks to my values and to my soul. It does not trigger my patriotism or tap my religion. It is a master without moral substance from this perspective. I feel like a subject, a servant, an object to be manipulated and fleeced of my income and wealth.

Occupy Wall Street activists are little different from the Tea Party in this respect. They, too, are populists, though they are more articulate on who is the elite and who are the people. For Occupy, the elite is more a matter of economics and less one of government regulation, though if we listen carefully to their analysis of American decline, they point to cronyism between wealth and government influence and power.

Thus Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party actually have a lot in common. They could join hands in a moral critique of our country's elites despite their differences: The Tea Party's social support is more small-town and suburban and its value core is more overtly Christian, while Occupy activists are more urban, college-educated and secular humanist in their core beliefs. The progressive critique of capitalism runs more strongly in the rhetoric of Occupy, while the Tea Party seems more at a loss over how best to think about abuse of private economic power.

That both Occupy and the Tea Party arose outside our organized political parties is a fact that condemns, and should embarrass, both parties. Our politicians toady to the establishment while a near majority of Americans no longer feels any affinity with the major parties. Cronyism between business and lawmakers has become a huge problem for our country. Big money has taken over our politics and driven out of the temple of power most every temptation to really embrace the people. The range of players is ever more narrowly professional. Party politicians are out of touch with the feelings of the people. Not as bad as Mubarak or Putin, certainly, but not as good as it should be in America, and as it once was.

If I were to draw up a common platform for the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, my draft would read something like this:

The American dream for which so many have struggled and sacrificed has slipped into memory. Our national future is not bright. For most Americans prospects of living well into retirement and being of consequence to the country are illusions. Anger and fear have replaced optimism and confidence. We see no leaders anywhere in whom we trust.

We believe that the problems facing the political and economic institutions of the United States are systemic rather than peripheral, and that "fixing" those problems will entail a much deeper process of reform than the passage of a few pieces of legislation to address specific issues.

We believe that the United States has become a country ruled by a small elite that dominates both the political and economic systems -- and that as a result of what amounts to collusion and cronyism, the United States has lost its way as a truly democratic system of government representing first and foremost the best interests of the majority of its people.

We believe that the collapse of credit markets in 2008 exposed the reality that American elites have not served our country well. The very parties responsible for the crash have not apologized, have not been held accountable for their actions and do not seem to have learned any lessons from their mistakes. On the contrary, many have profited handsomely while ordinary people -- the 99 percent -- have lost jobs, homes, retirement security and middle-class status.

We believe that real change will not come about strictly within the confines of the two-party system as it currently constituted. Change is ultimately dependent upon nonparty activism; in fact, it will only be through the persistence of such activism that any change will take place within an ossified electoral system.

We do not believe that an elite of highly educated professionals and technocrats in business, academia and government -- persons who have spent much to become credentialed and so access wealth and power -- should change the course of the country.

We believe that basic moral and ethical principles need to govern decision-making in both our political and economic systems. Such standards as respect for human dignity, solidarity and fraternity within local communities and social networks, and responsible trusteeship of the powers that we hold as individuals are some of such basic moral and ethical principles.

I would start off 2012 thinking about our country's future and what you and I can do to make it better.

Published: Fri, Jan 13, 2012

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