This is not a new question, but in our country in 2009 it is a question with both urgency and importance. It would seem that in the 233 years since the bold statements of the Declaration of Independence were signed we’d be closer to finding some answer…but the undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust in any expansion of federal government authority is profound. Individual instances may seem easy to dismiss, but the cumulative effect is not. The American public needs to take seriously the growing discomfort by some of our neighbors in a perceived nationalizing of more and more control in more and more parts of our lives. We need to start talking about this foundational issue very soon…before it deepens and escalates.
Most recently, angry and disruptive citizens have made it clear that they don’t want more government involvement in health care. Some governors chose (at least briefly) to reject federal stimulus funding for their states, and the Texas governor even broached the subject of secession around the issue of federal spending…and they had enough supporters in their states to make it politically effective. In 2009, a huge jump in the sales of guns and ammunition is said to be the response by gun owners to what they consider to be inevitable increases in gun control by the President and the Congress. ‘Tea Parties’ protested what participants saw as an increasing disconnection between taxation and representation. While it’s probably true that some of these efforts have been encouraged by conservative talk-radio entertainers, opportunistic politicians and high-paid lobbyists, a smoldering anger has ignited a large number of citizens into words and actions they’ve never contemplated before now. This is a dangerous time for our country.
How much unity is too much? I’m pretty sure the response of many people to that question would be: Huh? You can’t have too much unity…there’s never enough. But another legitimate response would be: It’s too much when it threatens our personal freedom…when it takes away our individuality…when it destabilizes states, counties and cities by consolidating more and more tax dollars, programs and authority at the federal level…when it adds additional layers of bureaucracy that local decisions require so much time, so many reports and so much cost to be effective. I addressed some of these issues in a couple previous posts concerning the dismantling of the ‘equality infrastructure.’ The accumulation of power at the federal level has some admirable goals, and it’s accomplished quite a lot for the well-being of all citizens in our country…BUT the trade-offs and unintended consequences are deeply troubling to many who now feel powerless as they try to make everyday decisions that are compatible with their unique values and local needs.
The push-back on the recent town hall meeting disruptions focuses on the right-wind media, and characterizes the noisy protestors as misinformed dupes of big business and radical ideologues. Hey, they might be serving the needs of these groups too, but my impression is that they are expressing their feelings about what they see as a slippery-slope that leads to more and more federal control and less and less personal autonomy. The signs are there…hence the inflammatory language about ‘socialism’ and ‘Nazism’ and ‘Big Brother’ and ‘death panels.’ I believe the worst thing we can do as a public is to dismiss these voices as ‘crazies.’ The August disruptions are not really about health care reform…they are about the balance of power between the federal government and its citizens who depend on their local communities for a fulfilling quality of life.
United…or states…or both? I think many would agree that the United States of America is not so much a completed outcome as it is a vision we’re constantly striving to achieve. What we don’t agree about is how much unity and how much personal freedom strikes a comfortable and sustainable balance in that vision. To use a health care perspective, we can continue to just talk about and to treat the symptoms of a long-term, debilitating illness OR we can include in our discussions on these painful symptoms some attention to what might be frustrating our attempts at healing. In my view, we’ve been in denial about this foundational difference of opinion since the early 1960s. It’s time to bring this emotional and potentially explosive topic into the light of day…not to think we can resolve it once-and-for-all, but to include it permanently in all of our public conversations.