Wake Up, People: The Tea Party Doesn’t Own Anger

Anyone else remember civic engagement?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the total dissolution of civility in American government, about the ramifications of having elected officials who have effectively devolved into Mean Girls, each snubbing the other in the high-school cafeteria that is now Congress. (For more on this, check out my colleague Christine Speer’s insightful rant.) But I think the problem actually runs a little deeper than that. All the way down to we the people.

I spent Monday night at a town hall meeting about all of the recent flooding here; faithful readers of this blog (and I know there are so many of you) know that I am one of the unfortunate ones for whom Hurricane Irene and her cousin Lee were not merely names on the ticker crawl at the bottom of cable news, but heinous visitors who wreaked havoc on our homes. The meeting room was packed with people similarly impacted, all looking in vain for answers, for help, for reassurance. Typical of government these days, we walked away with none of them.

But that wasn’t the most disconcerting part. What was really troubling was the blithe acceptance with which most of the attendees accepted the lip service given. There was almost a palpable collective shrug in the room, an unspoken, “Oh well, stuff happens,” even though my town has now been flooded five times in the last seven years—this after not being flooded at all for the prior 50. That’s not stuff happening, people. That’s someone falling down on the job. Namely, the people to whom we pay taxes to avoid things like having our homes float away.

I took a turn during the public comments portion of the meeting and ranted and raved (briefly, I swear). A few people seemed suitably pleased that someone else was pushing the outrage button as our life savings disappear (literally) beneath the water. But what struck me more was how many people seemed either indifferent or, in some cases, downright offended at my pointed commentary to the elected officials, that I dared to question their authority, dared to demand that they, the people supposed to represent our interests, actually do something so that our homes don’t vanish into some suburban Atlantis. Instead, many of my fellow citizens made a point of thanking the panel for having us, the great unwashed, in to a meeting at all. I think the only thing that made me more incredulous was the number of my neighbors—people like me who are now out thousands and thousands of dollars in uninsured losses (flood deductibles are outrageous)—who eschewed going to the meeting altogether, electing instead to stay at home and watch Monday Night Football or Miss Universe, the pale flickers of their plasma televisions lighting a path for my dispiriting walk back toward my house.

Like a lot of journalism school graduates, my first job out of college was at a small community paper, covering meetings not unlike the one I attended this week. But I seem to recall a different level of involvement, of engagement, of community interest and investment back then: I can remember a battle over a radio tower being erected in Florence, Burlington County in the mid-1980s that ended up in a wild zoning board meeting that lasted well past two in the morning. And that wasn’t about people losing their life savings. Now it just seems as if most people just couldn’t be bothered, even when they’re the ones directly in the line of fire. It’s just so much easier to tune out now, to protest on Facebook instead of at the mayor’s office. I don’t think it’s so much that you can’t fight City Hall—it’s that people are either too tired, or apathetic, or complacent to try anymore. Which may explain why our government at all levels is disintegrating into cesspools of entitlement, cronyism, indifference and imperialism. Some 90 percent of all incumbents in this country are re-elected. Do you have that kind of job security? And given that, why on earth would they ever care about us?

I am no Tea Party patriot by any means, but I have come to understand the anger that fuels the movement. Even though I don’t agree with much of their platform, the Tea Partiers are at least out there, raising hell, demanding to be heard, fighting for what they believe in, and the value in that is not to be understated. It is, after all, how the country was founded.

It had me thinking about the regular Sunday church service I attended this past weekend, on September 11th. The church was packed, and instead of a traditional hymn, at the end the organist played “God Bless America.” I was amazed by how almost everyone in the congregation sang along, and I was deeply moved—people were crying leaving the church. But civics are always easier when accompanied by a patriotic soundtrack. It’s when they’re accompanied by disaffected silence that things get tough.