The emotional fallout from the Cold War still renders millions of people fearful of anything that sounds remotely socialistic because they were sensitized to freak out simply upon hearing the word socialism. They are viscerally afraid of socialism, even though many can’t define it. Worse, they can’t seem to grasp the deeply ironic fact that the super-rich have already achieved a genuine form of socialism where their profits are capitalized and their losses are socialized. No matter what happens, they win and we lose.
Tea Party angst doesn’t stop here; these people are hyperalert for any and all reminders of their own mortality, the subconscious concern that lies at the core of their existential discontent. They are mortal, and the fact that they are is perceived as someone else’s fault, psychologically entangled as it is with all things foreign and other uncertainties. The fact that much of this anxiety occurs at an unconscious level that few people are savvy enough to understand doesn’t make it any easier to forgive. We’ve known this about ourselves for decades, but our education system fails to address this particular human weakness. We have Star-Trek technology, but when it comes to human relations, we are a century behind in making practical use of the knowledge we have gained about our behavior.
Now, it’s easy to make a case that there are merits to some of the Tea Party’s arguments. Yes, the federal government is wasteful and at times very inefficient. But the inefficiency is built in by an inborn contempt for otherness that limits tolerance toward individual initiative when it comes to public policy decisions. It is a universal human trait to abhor free riders, and we create our bureaucracies with rigid rules to avoid the appearance of catering to free riders. As a result, we tend to paralyze the ability of bureaucracies to function with enough autonomy to make reasonable decisions or even meet their simple objectives. In other words, bureaucracies are bureaucratic by design. If Jack Nicholson were describing bureaucracies with the zeal he demonstrated in A Few Good Men, I can imagine him saying, “We want them that way. We need them that way.”
Notorious acts by government bureaucrats frequently make news headlines because secrets are hard to keep in a public agency. Large companies suffer bureaucracy too, but their dreadful actions to come to light less easily because they are privately owned and they can fire employees at will. One of the biggest industrial fiascos in our history surrounds the egregious failure of the work by private companies in rebuilding war-torn Iraq, and yet this continuing farce gets scant media attention. Bureaucracy is virus-like: it can flourish anywhere, public or private, when objectivity is lost and accountability is lacking. It will always be the case that the federal government needs to reduce spending in some areas and increase it in others.
Government and private organizations both respond to accountability. Both are dysfunctional without it. Both are helpless without human beings. We the people are the government. We the people are also private company employees. We can’t pay attention to one of these entities and totally ignore the other. It was never intended to work that way, and it doesn’t.
All one has to do is look at the other advanced countries in the world to be awed by the radical notion that we are the only developed country on the planet that has generated such an aggressive and ongoing intense hatred for its own government. America has fallen behind so many other nations in quality of life issues and in such a range of other measures that we should find the reality of our standing with other developed nations shocking. We spend more on healthcare than any other country, and yet we are 37th on the list for the quality of our healthcare and 36th for life expectancy. We work longer hours than Europeans and enjoy fewer days off. We fall far below many other developed nations in quality of life standards, but when it comes to rising inequality we are way out front and picking up speed.
Homogeneity is a major criterion that most of the nations ranking above us in quality of life have in common. We pay a price for being a nation of immigrants. Our divisiveness has become so acute that we are no longer a melting pot, so to speak. On the contrary, our ethnocentric lumps are growing, but their size pales in comparison to the escalating strains of run-amok ideology now proliferating on the Internet. The price we pay for extreme diversity is a surplus of contempt for otherness. What’s more, the only way to overcome this condition is through education—a liberal or existential education, as I characterize it in September University.