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Monday, September 19, 2005

Peter, Paul and George

I watched a Peter, Paul & Mary documentary last night. I loved their music when I was young and still do now. My wife looked at me skeptically. “We have nothing in common with those people now,” she pointed out. “They’re are all Democrats.” Actually, even though I’m a hard down conservative (which is not the same thing as a Republican by the way), I do have a lot in common with that odd collection of befuddled old liberals on the tube last night, fervently singing their anti-war and protest songs.

- We agree that war is bad for children and other living things and should be avoided.
- We agree that racism is fundamentally wrong.
- We agree that people should not be hungry.
- We agree that children should be treated with care and respect.
- We agree that we should treat everyone the way we want to be treated.
- We agree that life should be fun.
- We agree that the past is important and there are many things we can learn from it.
- We agree that the future is in our hands to shape.

What we disagree on is the method for accomplishing that goal. I am an advocate. Most of my colleagues in advocacy are liberal Democrats (with a capital “D”). I am a conservative (with a small “c”). I often vote Republican. I listen to Rush Limbaugh AND PBS. An accountant friend of mine once said I should spontaneously combust from the sheer contradiction of my beliefs.

The problem is he does not understand my beliefs. He is in exactly the same state as the radical right wing Republicans he openly despises. He believes he understands his opponents. He assigns motives to them believing they must, in fact, be evil people since they have not all joined the Democratic party, ergo they evidently disagree with his fundamental beliefs since if you agreed with those beliefs, you would surely be a Democrat.

In working over the past 4 years to help make sure that East Texas seniors, people with disabilities and low income families have access to the transportation resources they need to live, work and play alongside the rest of us, I discovered that some of my best allies were elected conservative legislators, senators and congressmen. I also discovered that my liberal buddies often had no clue as to how to talk to these folks. To be fair, they could not fathom why anyone had elected conservatives to public office in the first place, so it’s likely they aren’t terribly invested in understanding people they believe were elected either accidentally or under false pretenses and who will surely be thrown out when the American people wise up.

Sadly, believing they are so far apart from the new majority party, they have become every bit as intolerant in their own view of conservatives as they have long claimed Republicans are intolerant toward them. The anger they bear toward the very people they are asking for support has gotten in the way of their attempts to accomplish what they want to in the state legislature and congress.

Ultimately, both liberals and conservatives really do want social justice however differently they view the proper path toward that justice. A popular quote that has been used a lot lately illustrates how we agree on the ends, but not on the process. An African proverb, widely quoted of late says that it takes a village to raise a child. Liberals assume that the village is either national or global in scope. Put enough money in the hands of a large government entity and very smart people are expected to figure out how to make everything okay for everybody. To a conservative, that proverb means literally that the raising of children should be decided at the village level. It doesn’t say it takes a congress to raise a child or a UN summit. Instead conservatives like me believe that local people getting up out of their chairs and going to work on local problems is the best way to solve those problems.

That’s where I come down. I’ve discovered that it is extremely difficult to tease a workable solution for a local problem out of the federal government. It’s difficult to get the state to allow sufficient flexibility in its programs to create solutions that work at the local level. Sure they throw fat grants at problems, but by the time they get to Flint, they’re hedged about with so many restrictions and paperwork requirements that many of us just leave the money on the table as not being worth the trouble it takes to get it.

Public Transportation in Texas is a prime example. East Texas has been short changed for decades on the funding we get for transit, largely because we’ve done a lousy job of articulating what we need here. We’ve lacked the expertise, the lobbyists, the organization needed to get what we needed back from the government we entrusted with our tax dollars in the first place. So we’ve just kept on sending our taxes out and they kept on sending the money on to someone else. What comes back to us is so hedged in by rules and regulations that we wind up with rules that only allow transit companies to take people to doctors appointments and force them to make a separate trip to take the same person to the grocery store because the funding wouldn’t allow us to do both things on the same trip.

That kind of stupidity results from trying to solve local problems from Washington, DC. You have to create such a rigid structure in order to make federal programs “fair” to everyone across the nation that you wind up making it impossible to create anything but cookie cutter solutions when the programs reach the communities they’re supposed to serve.

Then, there are the hideous bureaucracies you create when you run programs out of Washington. We send the feds a dollar for food programs but it’s unlikely we get even half of that money back. The rest goes somewhere else or gets eaten up in salaries for the entrenched layers of bureaucracies in between Washington and Tyler, Texas. It’s an absurd way of doing social programs.

I believe we’re in the middle of a paradigm shift in government and nobody’s talking about it except conservative ideologues like Limbaugh and Hannity. Few people even understand that it’s happening. There is a movement underway to reduce the size of government that began in earnest when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. It confuses Republicans and Democrats alike, both of whom really do like big government when you get right down to it. What local communities don’t realize is that as federal and state taxes are successfully reduced, we are going to have to start taking over some important jobs like fighting local poverty and feeding the hungry and helping people find work at the local level. We can do it better here anyway!

My liberal friends don’t trust us to do it locally. It’s easier to fight the good fight in one place (Washington) than it is to fight it in hundreds of thousands of communities. Washington is a seductive place. All those statues and monuments and armies of young interns in black trench coats busily making connections and running government; all those huge granite buildings with all those heavy brass fixtures and wood paneling; all those statues – makes you think that somehow if you can just figure out how to work this town, you can do great things.

Those who have been seduced by the romance of working in Austin and Washington, would do well to remember that Martin Luther King started in the projects. Ghandi started in South African bodegas and Indian villages. The American Revolution wasn’t won in London!

I really believe that the successful activists of the future are going to be more and more conservative, more local in focus and each of them is going to increasingly have to become a lobbyist for his constituents and not for any specific party. Parties come and parties go, but as Jesus said, “The poor you have with you always.” Solutions for what we do about that should come from local government, faith-based communities and community based social service organizations that are based and funded as close to the village level as we can get them – shorter chains of bureaucracy that way.

The Democrats, unfortunately, haven’t figured that out yet. These arguably brilliant grass roots organizers ought to spend their time organizing local groups in solving local problems instead of busily busing them all to Washington DC. I tell you what - a mayor is a whole lot easier to intimidate than a president. When they figure that out, maybe the Democrats can once again become the party that it once was; a party that as Ronald Reagan pointed out, left most of us a long time ago to go off and play politics in Washington.

Tip O’Neill understood the point if not the application when he said, “All politics is local.”
Republicans are ahead of the game right now in figuring that out for the first time in history. I once did a fund-raiser in which I spoofed the upcoming presidential election by charging people to throw a pie at the candidate of their choice (or non-choice as suited the pie-thrower’s fancy). Volunteers wore Al Gore and George W. Bush masks and posed for cream pies. I asked representatives of both parties to volunteer. The Republicans got the joke! They brought a whole crew and ran the booth like carnival barkers. George W. Bush got 122 pie votes that afternoon.

When I approached the Democrats to help out in the booth, the county coordinator looked at me in horror and said, “You want to throw WHAT at the vice-president?” They refused to participate in such an undignified thing and as a result, Al Gore got creamed in our little pie poll. When a party loses its sense of good humor, it’s in BIG trouble. Don’t get me wrong, here; some of my closest friends are Democrats (big D). We’ve done a lot of good work together. But these guys need to lighten up a little. The caustic humor of Al Franken and Whoopi Goldberg is not serving them well. They’re getting creamed by guys like Rush Limbaugh and a growing number of new, more conservative humorists who have seized the public stage and are holding on to it by actually being funny rather than merely nasty.

When people accuse President Bush of being the most divisive president in history, they evidently haven’t come to my little village. As governor and then president, his policies and speeches actually united the folks in my neighborhood (except for one old crotchety guy from Massachusetts and none of us like him anyway and several of us have invited him to move if he really felt that way about the rest of us!). Just because liberals don’t like Bush and it makes them mad that he got elected TWICE, doesn’t make it true that he’s the most divisive in history. They said that about his two predecessors. Heck, I said that about Clinton! But, that’s kind of like when you were four years old, complaining that “Little Freddy made me mad!” because he got the last cookie. Hey, somebody had to get the last cookie! Get over it and figure out how to play nice.

...and I'm talking to myself too.

Just one man’s opinion….

Tom King

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