I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas during the 1940 and ’50s. We were political conservatives, in conservative towns, in conservative states. In point of fact, we didn’t know anyone who did not fit this description, at least who was willing to admit otherwise. My grandfather, born in 1889, served in World War I and lived through the Great Depression. The hard times left a mark on him that stayed with him for life. He added to his savings, even when money was tight. He paid his bills on time and in person. He bought nothing on credit, even his homes and cars. He always paid cash. Since his death in 1981, I remember him as a staunch conservative, although he was nothing like the people we characterize as conservatives today, especially those active in politics.
I’ve always thought of my grandfather as the most honorable man I have ever known, and yet I consider myself a liberal with a capital L. My mind has not changed about my grandfather, even though it has changed dramatically about my politics. But then, the conservatism in his day was something altogether different than today. Back then, in my view, it was something to be admired. Political ideology be damned, he and those like him believed in doing the right things for the right reasons. A good idea was judged on its merits, not where it came from. He was fair-minded and beholden to no ideology for ideology’s sake. My grandfather was proud of his service in the war, but he never talked about it. He was a man of his word and despised dishonesty. He could add and subtract as fast as he talked. I recall more than one incident where he would read his grocery receipt aloud, adding as he went, only to discover it was incorrect. When he found an error, he would return to the store and either collect or pay the difference.
I’m telling you about my grandfather because he personified the best of what I remember about the 1950s and the Jurassic era of conservatism. Elsewhere I have written at length about the blinding conformity and racism of that period, and yet, as is true for most other people who grew up during those years, my childhood memories savor the good things. It’s only in hindsight as adults that we can appreciate the reality of the way things were and recognize the prevailing injustice most of us failed to comprehend, acknowledge, or fight to overturn.
Today, America’s infrastructure is crumbling. Our roads, dams, bridges, sewer systems, and national electric grid require trillions of dollars worth of investment and maintenance to sustain our way of life. This fact makes the current nonstop hypermania about lowering taxes the single most absurd and disingenuous political position ever held by a political party. America in the 1950s was a lot like my grandfather in his fiscal conservatism. The bare fact of history is that the American middle class came into being because of an aggressive federal government, intent upon making a massive investment in a robust future.
We developed an interstate highway system, built great dams and bridges, and brought electricity to rural America. Taxes in the upper brackets were high, very high by today’s standards, pushing 90 percent or more. A progressive income tax ensured investment in the future as a way to shelter one’s wealth. But between the lower and higher brackets was a considerable amount of room for affluence. The earnings from ordinary jobs were enough to allow the purchase of a home and the middle-class lifestyle that we associate with it. Not so today. The American middle class is crumbling along with our infrastructure primarily because we don’t understand the nature of its origin and what’s necessary to sustain it.
Capitalism came very close to failure during the Great Depression, and it seems to come perilously close every time the magical virtue of free markets is taken as gospel. There is no such thing as a free market—never has been and never will be. There are always rules and hidden costs that favor some groups over others, and that’s why the government has to be strong enough and politically unbiased enough to even the playing field. Those who want to get the government completely out of the way ought to consider moving to Somalia. Government is by design imperfect, but if it cannot be depended on to do what it must do for the sake of all of its citizens, then democracy itself is untenable.
What bothers me most about the Tea Party angst is the shallowness of their thinking. Coupling a wish for obscenely low taxes with a smoldering hatred for government is absurdity on steroids. In reality, government is the very thing that makes their lives possible, and extremely low taxes are not possible in a nation that needs high level maintenance and a sentinel level of security. I remember personally what it’s like to engage in such shallow thinking. I remember mistaking first impressions for reality. I remember taking textbook history as fact and political slogans as the truth. I recall being so overwhelmed by appeals to my identity that I didn’t see the bait-and-switch tactics of the politicians who pretended to aspire to my particular values while they simultaneously reworked the tax code in ways that made it impossible to sustain the middle class.
If I have learned anything in my years of intensive self-education, it is that things are not as simple as they appear. Look into any subject in detail and you will find your first impression at odds with what is actually the case. And yet, genealogically, Tea Party politics is based upon a clichéd attack on all things unfamiliar. When you delve deeply into what’s most troubling to the folks who vehemently hate the government, what you discover is plain old existential angst, the kind that comes with an inability to deal with too much diversity and so much change that the whole world seems out of control.
As a gun owner, I can see some truth in the notion that these folks cling to their guns and religion in self-defense. Guns represent part of their identity and so does their religion. They feel threatened by too much otherness, period. This plays itself out with an obsessive contempt for immigrants, hostility toward gays and lesbians, a disregard for people who have been out of work for long periods of time (unless it applies to them personally),and outright expressions of hatred for government programs that promise inclusiveness beyond their particular group identity.