Why Americans are angry
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Bill Barth
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They don't like what they see
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Emotion. The enemy of reason
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Celebrate being alive
Yes. Be careful
Lessons to learn from conflict
No longer needed?
Why Americans are angry
The weeks leading up to an election, at a newspaper, could be called lots of things, but the most appropriate word is … exhausting.
        As a newspaper editor I have sat through hour after hour of candidate interviews. I have reviewed position paper after position paper. I’ve been besieged by phone calls and e-mails and visitors at the front desk. I have received, reviewed and approved scores and scores of letters to the editor from advocates for one candidate or another.
        And the primary conclusion to draw from this front-row seat to Election 2010?
        Very few candidates get it.
        No candidate has all the answers to fix what ails us.
        And why should we expect them to? Americans usually invest more than they can afford to lose in their political leaders.
        I’ve been doing this for a long time, and most elections tend to sound like the same old harangue, different year. Politicians yammer on about their party’s talking points while journalists try to pry them loose from the script to see what they really believe. Both sides are skilled at the dance.
        What is different in 2010 is the uncertainty evident on the faces and in the words of nearly every candidate. Not the kind of uncertainty one might expect of newcomers to elective politics, but the sort that says, “I have no idea what will resonate with voters this year.”
        The political world is upside down. Some might say that’s because of the Tea Party. But the real Tea Partyers comprise a relatively small percentage of the voting public. Look at their rallies in local communities. The crowds generally are not huge. The Tea Party represents a symptom of a much larger trend.
The closest measure comes from those polls indicating whether Americans believe the country is heading in the right or wrong direction. Only about one in five say “right,” with about 80 percent wishing for a different roadmap.
        Democrats, with President Obama’s election in 2008, thought they had regained what they held for 40 years — near-total control of government — until Republican gains in the mid-1990s. I think Democrats are genuinely shocked so many Americans appear ready to send them back to wander the wilderness.
        A good example is Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who trails his heretofore unknown Republican challenger with just days to go before balloting. In our interview, Feingold struck me as both bewildered and struggling to suppress anger. One could almost read his mind: “Hey, everybody knows I’m a maverick. Sure, I vote with my party most of the time, but now and then I go off the reservation on a big issue. But I always keep faith with Wisconsin’s Progressive traditions. And now I’m trailing a 50-something business guy who’s never been elected to any office?” A couple of the Republicans seem to understand that, just because Americans are angry with Democrats, doesn’t mean they’ve fallen in love with the GOP. Others are all but licking their lips in anticipation of gaining power, and clearly think that will be a mandate to shove the country to the right.
        Here’s my take. Politicians are looking for clear meaning where there isn’t any. The public’s anger is not just directed at the actions of Obama and his party. And very few Americans expect Republicans suddenly to have discovered all the right answers after years of epic screw-ups.
        Rather, I think the anger is, more or less, unfocused. The politicians are in the crosshairs because they make such easy targets. And Lord knows way too many of them deserve it, because they so often put the interests of the party and themselves above the general welfare of the country.
        But I think the real anger is over what America has lost. This is not the country many Americans — at least those over 40 — remember and love.
        Much of it has to do with the economy. People just aren’t sure that working hard and following the rules pays off anymore. They remember when workers cared about companies, and companies cared about workers. They remember when loyal employees could retire with dignity on a reliable pension. Now they are afraid for their jobs. Worse, they’re afraid their children and grandchildren can expect a lower standard of living.
        They’ve seen unimaginable wealth flow to the few, while millions of jobs have been lost forever. They’ve seen the financiers — gamblers, in most people’s opinion — sweep the table clean of cash, while small investors’ retirement funds all but disappeared.
They’ve seen their small-town business districts decimated, victims of big box stores filled to the brim with cheap foreign goods. They’ve seen home-grown companies swallowed up by multi-national firms with no interest in the community’s well-being.
On the social front, they wonder what happened to the days when respect and courtesy and civility were the everyday glue of life. They see bad behavior praised as hip, and mannered behavior ridiculed as nerdy. They see old-fashioned values — modesty, humility, even responsible fatherhood — treated with disdain.
        So I’m not at all persuaded this discontent is about politics. Truth is, I don’t believe most folks think any politician is going to sweep in and fix this mess.
         It’s about the very essence of America, and that for many folks the America they believe in has been missing in action long enough. When people say they want to “take back the country,” they’re talking about the country they remember, not the one they see.
Of course, that makes others angry, too. So we hear that the Tea Party and their sympathizers are racist, or homophobic, or Islamophobic, or take-your-pick-o-phobic.
        Bull. That politically correct gibberish just makes middle America angrier.
The only thing I’m really sure of is that America will not find all the right answers on Tuesday, Nov. 2.
        Why? Because the answer does not reside with the politicians. This is about the people. About who we were, who we are, who we want to be. Don’t expect to wake up Nov. 3 to hear that answer.