I may be every bit as mad at my local, state, and federal government officials as any Tea Party member. I know that its party members have no monopoly on discontent or anger. They are not alone in thinking that elected or appointed government officials are too often inattentive or unresponsive, incompetent or ineffective.
I have been politically active for nearly 60 years. I have rarely signed a petition or a mass letter. I have usually written my own letters and placed my own phone calls. At 11, I wrote my Congressman to urge him to vote against the proposed Echo Park Dam in Wyoming. When I was 30 or so, I wrote my Senator to urge him to vote against one of President Nixon’s nominees to the Supreme Court. I got a page-and-a-half letter in reply detailing his agreements and disagreements. Invariably, my letters or calls to executive or legislative branch officials got replies.
No longer. A case in point is certified letters sent to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and NM Senator Jeff Bingaman in which I gave reasons for revising the annual Medicare guide sent to millions of seniors. Its poor organization and writing make it inconvenient and confusing. Many flip through it, file it, and forget it; others discard it. As a result, even those who consult it first usually end up calling Medicare staff for help. I suggested that revision to make it more usable would save money wasted on a Medicare staff made larger than necessary by bad writing, to answer questions from those finding it useless.
You might think that government officials would welcome a suggestion to improve services and save money, but you would be wrong. I got no response for over two months. When I finally called one of Bingaman’s local aides yesterday, she insinuated that I had sent no letter; then, when I provided proof, she insinuated that I had sent blank pages (unless, as she backtracked, “radiation” had erased them).
Many citizens offer suggestions to elected or appointed government officials for improving government performance or saving money. Most vote and pay taxes; some have an opinion and take the trouble to express it. This experience suggests a new indifference to citizens, to service, and to tax dollars. Apparently, we have phony representation but real taxation—precisely what the Tea Party members claim.
Officials who do not communicate with citizens about their concerns and do not act frugally with their money are not likely to address important problems and develop sensible solutions. Instead, they appear to regard holding office for the public good as less important than maintaining office for the private benefit of financial gain or ego gratification or both.
An argument to the contrary has to consider that state Democrats and Republicans have gerrymandered federal Congressional districts to ensure the election of fellow party members in predominantly Democratic or Republican districts, respectively. Thus, the real political campaigns are not fall elections but spring and summer primaries between incumbents and more extreme challengers either from the Democratic left or from the Republican right. The result is ideological polarization which makes politics—also known as the art of the possible—increasingly a lost art, increasingly not possible.
The resulting acrimonious stalemate in Washington creates in the country a desire for something which does not and, in present circumstances, cannot exist: bipartisanship. Candidates invoking bipartisanship recognize citizen discontent but are either naïvely nostalgic or cynically manipulative in calling for it. For in gerrymandered districts, candidates must use harsh ideological rhetoric which later precludes frank talk about real issues in the campaign or actual cooperation in Congress. One reason: media coverage exposes any deviations from campaign promises. Ideology relieves candidates from addressing the issues and offering realistic solutions to problems, and rescues incumbents from running on (or from) their records.
Anyone who wanted bipartisanship would work to end gerrymandering. But anyone who worked to end it would face opposition from everyone else because politically more balanced congressional districts would decrease chances of retaining party power and increase the election risks of party members, including incumbents. Even term limits cannot address the problem because, in gerrymandered districts, one set of ideological rascals would simply replace another set.
The political prognosis is not good because the problem is structural. In America, we face the turbulence, stresses, and uncertainties of a global economy; the magnitude of economic and environmental effects; the deterioration of American education; and, today, crowning all, ideological rigidity and political gridlock. Thus, we are likely to worsen our lot by compulsively seeking relief by switching from one party to the other in successive elections. Thanks to the recent Supreme Court decision, unlimited spending by corporations, unions, wealthy individuals, and single-issue groups will likely diminish the electorate’s ability to influence their representatives or to make smart policy choices.
Tea Party members may be happy with this decision in the short-run. Many seem to regard big corporations as favorably as they regard big government unfavorably. If dire forecasts of the influence of big-money political advertising on state and federal officials come true, Tea Party members may realize too late for the freedom which they want to protect that we have less say in our lives than before. At that time, I shall have no sympathy for them.