Toward the end of the Great Depression, one of my earliest memories was of humble men appearing at our back door politely asking for even a bite of food. We lived near the railroad tracks that ran through town and when trains stopped, these knights of the road, gaunt as any figures from Grapes of Wrath, would go to back doors nearby, always back doors, and ask for any help—ask, not beg—that we might give. My Mom would give them a slice of bread, usually with a little sugar on it, and butter if we had it. Their remembered gratitude brings sadness these many decades later.
This was brought to mind by a recent New York Times story about how even the most ardent critics of government spending still depend on it. Spending for the poor has gone down even as spending for the middle class, including those in the Tea Party, has gone up. “They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it, and resent the government for providing it,” the story says. That sentence sums up early 21st century American politics better than any other explanation I’ve seen.
One honest conservative man said: “It’s hard to beat up on the government when they’ve been so good to you. I’ve never really thought about it, I guess.” Could we do without the social safety net, without Social Security and Medicare, without farm subsidies, without unemployment compensation, without school lunch programs, without housing assistance? Of course we could. But we would not be a civilized society and we would not be an American nation any of us would be proud of.
We have freedom of speech. But that speech is most persuasive when it is honest and not hypocritical. I’ll listen to any argument a Tea Party member wants to make, so long as they are not rich and so long as they have given up reliance on the government programs virtually all depend on. The anger in America today has much to do with those who depend on the government, who feel guilty for it, and who resent the government for making them feel guilty.
The simple answer is: get over it. Years ago I had a slogan: “If you want the government off your back, get your hands out of its pockets.” People in this country can’t have it both ways. Either we do away with the safety net that almost every American depends on, or we pay for it. If there is a third option (other than the long-discredited “waste, fraud, and abuse”), let’s see it.
Recent polls show that many voters who supported Tea Party candidates in 2010 now consider it a mistake because they didn’t expect them to be total obstructionist. They are in that large group represented by the man who said: “I never really thought about it, I guess.” It’s probably too much to ask that these angry middle class complainers be as grateful for the support our government, and our taxpayers, provide them as those poor but decent and honest men were at our back door these many years ago.