The President has proposed a "jobs bill," which is encouraging, and the rhetoric from the other side of the political aisle has been somewhat muted, which is also encouraging. While these encouraging signs are, well, encouraging, they arrive very late in a political battle that threatens both the short and long term futures. For the Republicans, it began as soon as they determined that Barack Obama would likely win the Presidency and carry Congressional majorities on his coattails. They began immediately, and openly, their efforts to ensure that Obama would lose the 2012 election.
The most honorable way to pursue this endeavor would have been to provide practical and attractive alternatives to the President’s plans, sell them well, and convince the American public that a political change is the best way to bring them about. The most effective way to pursue this endeavor, however, is to demonize the President, energize and welcome those whose platform includes racist fear and hate, bring government as close as possible to a standstill, and, through neglect, create an unhappy electorate that will vote for almost anything if they believe that something will happen as a result. The Republicans clearly and openly chose this route three years ago, and the Democrats are only now—slowly, softly and respectfully—beginning to call them out.
For the Democrats, it’s far too little, far too late. Many Minnesotans seem surprised that the contentious political situation at the national level seems similar to the situation at the state level. It’s not a coincidence at all. It’s a well planned and so far brilliantly executed political strategy, and it’s happening all over the country.
While the most visible Republican action—or inaction—has occurred since the beginning of the Obama presidency, it’s a culmination of a long-term strategy. Some would say it goes back as long as 30 years. The apparent motive—limiting the size and role of government—can and will be argued, and all sides will have meritorious points. However, spending decades of time and all available political capital to stop things from happening takes its toll. Government investments, such as the ones contemplated in the President’s jobs program, do more than stimulate the economy. They can give people something to hang their American hats upon.
After World War II, the war hero and conservative republican President Dwight Eisenhower saw this need, and pushed for what is probably the most far-reaching public works program in history, the interstate highway system. As a nation, we certainly made some mistakes in pursuit of those highways, but we built them, and we use them to the extreme, and we argue mightily about ways to expand them or to provide other transportation options that will ease the strain on them. Planning, designing, building and maintaining them has created and maintained innumerable jobs in the public and private sectors.
In the ensuing years, we worked hard as a nation to eliminate racism. We provided medical care for the elderly. We improved the public education system and expanded aid programs to allow more people access to post-secondary education. We made a national commitment to explore space, and have reaped enormous technological and research benefits from that commitment.
With the notable exception of the Americans With Disabilities Act that was passed in the early 1990s, it’s hard to come up with examples of the American government investing in plans and ideas that will make America and the world better places in future years. (The "war on terror," while commanding great amounts of the national treasure, quickly lost its ability to inspire national unity and shows little promise toward ending either war or terror.) Even many of our more progressive politicians pay major lip service to the idea that governments must stop investing in people.They might call it "deficit reduction" or "bringing spending under control," but it all means the same thing. Progressive investment seems to be off the table.
At the local level, many people seem to believe they can’t have much impact on the national debate, and they may be right. We can long for great things to happen at the international, national and state levels, but it appears unlikely that the near future will bring about much progress. People at the local level can, however, do a lot to slowly but steadily bring about progress; doing what they can do, using the power and authority they already have.
We can, at the local level, create the building blocks of tomorrow’s greatness. We might not have billions to invest, maybe it’s only thousands. It’s critical, however, to realize that any progress that’s made in the foreseeable future will likely be at the local level. That means city council meetings, board and commission meetings, even neighborhood organization meetings are more important than ever. It means local elections are more important than ever.
We can do things to improve education. We can do things to protect the environment. We can do things in ensure equality of rights and opportunity. They might not be the great, national tasks that drove America in earlier decades. But they’re things we can do. Great things can come from St. Paul and from Washington, D.C., but they’re not destined to come until the current political wrangling has run its course. What we call "the politics of nothing" has been building strength for 30 years now, and doesn’t seem ready to yield to progress any time soon.
Where will progress come from? As our editorials often say, "Look in a mirror."