Desperation and Anger

Author: Gary Hart

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.

10 Responses to “Desperation and Anger”

  1. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Again, I place the blame for much of this confused and divisive attitude of many Americans squarely upon the Republican Party and its attempts to woo the middleclass into its fold. When will the majority of the American public understand that the current Republican Party leaders do not and will not aligned themselves with the average American, especially the middleclass? They have become the party of the wealthy and the powerful and have no intention of taking government off the back of any of the people except the wealthy, Big Business, Big Oil, Big Banking, and themselves. How about these Republicans applying the same “waste, fraud, and abuse” litmus test to the corporate welfare programs for their true constituents, as they want to apply to the social welfare programs for the truly needy. I loved Mittt’s comment about the reason that he only paid a 15% tax on his investment income because it came from corporations, who had already been taxed on their profits. That argument might, and I repeat MIGHT, hold some water, if those corporations actually paid any US taxes on their profits. It has become increasingly apparent that tax breaks are for the rich, not the average American. The Republican Party does not want the American people to really look at the tax situation in this country and understand who is actually paying the taxes to support the government. They just create confusion and do not supply any viable options that actually address the situation. They want to blame the Obama administration for not fixing the economic problems, which they themselves created, and block any real attempt to address the excesses that they have heaped upon the heads of the American public since the beginning of the first Reagan administration.

  2. Neil McCarthy Says:

    You are right to complain about the hypocrisy of those who condemn government while taking everything government gives them. I do think, however, that many of those cases of hypocrisy are products of an unchanneled (and uninformed) anger that knows not where to go. The bigger culprits in my mind are the political leaders and candidates who know better but insist on playing the same game. For well over thirty years now, they have manufactured and then mined the government haters for votes, following which they go to Washington, D.C. (or the various state capitals) where the can’t square the circles they’ve created. They then substitute photo-ops on Fox for any real effort to understand and make sound policy. If they ever de-funded the entire New Deal, they’d lose. And they know that. So they don’t. They just keep lying about wanting to.

  3. The Left's Mixed Message on Middle-Class Benefits - NYTimes.com Says:

    [...] than they used to, while middle-class voters who resent government are gobbling up more of it. On his blog Matters of Principle, the always prescient Gary Hart wrote that the story reminded him of a slogan he had used many years [...]

  4. Martin Luther Says:

    The hypocrisy of the Tea Party members pales in the presence of the arrogance of the left and delusional progressives.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    There may be an argument somewhere in Mr. Luther’s comment, but I’ll need help finding it.

  6. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I think Mr Luther is talking about the fact that progressives have developed a reputation for being a bit self-righteous in their constant whining about the Obama administration, almost since Inauguration Day. They seem to be under the illusion that President Obama is working in a political vacuum and robust economy, though I can’t for the life of me understand where they get that from. They seem to want nothing less than what they want when they want it.

    If President Obama is not re-elected, then that sad outcome will be due in no small part to the arrogance of the left and delusional progressives. Oh, I kid the progressives …

  7. Brian C McCarthy Says:

    Senator, when Depression-era poor people turned up at back doors looking for food, as in your example, there was probably little thought as to their motives among those who chose, and even among those who chose not, to give what they could spare. They needed food, plain and simple. Today, some people hesitate to give a dollar or some change to random panhandlers on the street, wondering if they might use the money to buy drugs or alcohol, but how many of those people hesitate to buy a pop star’s CD or concert tickets thinking that pop star might use the money to buy the same things? The former are “drunks” or “addicts” while the latter is simply “troubled.” Individuals who need help are “lazy” or “shiftless” while corporations needing help are “job creators.” Perception and hypocrisy seem to play a more and more significant role in how society treats those in need of help and how it views the spending of money to provide that help.

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Brian McCarthy, it is that sense of caring and sharing that now seems so old fashioned but that I want people to think about. It is basic humanity and used to be how Americans lived. I pray that one day we will leave all this judgmentalism behind us and return to that sense of basic decency which is what a civilized society is all about.

  9. Crystal Says:

    As always, Mr. Hart, an interesting and thought provoking piece. My roommate tells the same story about people showing up at her grandma’s back door and being thankful for a piece of bread with lard on it. Lard!

    I know there are people in this society that need help, and I know we need the social safety nets we have. The problem I have is that we are unable to distinguish between those who truly need help, and those who are unwilling to work for their living. This puts me in the category of judging why a person needs help, but I don’t think we can afford to continue supporting those who could support themselves and contribute to society. I have been torn on this for some time, and wish I had some inkling what the answer was. I also wish we had leaders stepping up to deal with it rather than just saying to do away with it all, or using other distractions to take our minds away from it.

  10. Gary Hart Says:

    In response to Crystal: efforts have been made over the years, especially under President Clinton, to end public assistance for the able-bodied. Hundreds of thousands, particularly women on public assistance, were moved into the job market. It worked for a few years because the economy was growing. Now many of them have no jobs, have no assistance, and are living in poverty. It really depends on how you view human nature. I believe, based on my working class family and laboring experience, that most people want to work. They do not like “hand-outs.” Conservative people often believe the poor are poor by choice. I disagree. Some basic facts: the vast majority of people receiving some form of public assistance are too old or too young or too disabled to work; more people on public assistance are white, not minorities; and now we are in a recession where there are not enough jobs for the people who want and need them.

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