Sunday, October 31, 2010

"The Times, They Are A-Changin"

(With Apologies to the Man From Hibbert)

I'm getting a head start on the analysis of the midterm election cycle two days before election day. In fact, I've been thinking about these things for quite a while and thought I'd offer my reflections in advance of the media's deconstruction of Obama's style (I like Maureen Dowd, but she's getting on my nerves!), the political strategies used or missed, the Tea Party as a force or a corporate tool, policy overreach or timidity (right or left, respectively).

I'm taking a few steps back from the immediate situation to think about some of what's going on. If I'm right, it's the kind of truth-telling we need to be engaged in. Instead we're avoiding it, distorting it, and mostly yelling about it.

Here are two sound bites from the 2008 campaign. They both say a lot about what's going on. One the one hand, Sarah Palin spoke to rallies in medium sized towns and focused on what "Real Americans" believe in. On the other hand, Obama created a firestorm by claiming than in uncertain times, folks "cling to Guns or Religion."

Palin's comments were similar to the kind of blather all politicians spout. They talk about "what the American people want..." based on no more information than what the politician hears from constituents, lobbyists, pollsters, or commentators. If they were honest, they'd at least say, "I'm hearing from folks who think ...".

But there's a much larger issue to Palin's Real American comments that connects directly to Obama's comments. Clearly, it wasn't the right wording for Obama. But imagine if he had said, "in uncertain times, people cling to what is comfortable". The important thing in his statement was the CLINGING, not the thing clung to. Palin's comments about REAL Americans suggests some others that don't share the values of those to whom she spoke.

Underneath both ideas is a recognition that things are shifting. Even if the Norman Rockwell small town America fantasy has been eroding for decades, we're now beginning to realize that the world as it's been imagined is not what we will see going forward.

The anxiety that goes with this change is real. It was well stated in a column by Frank Rich in the New York Times in August of 2009 ( He is writing about the upcoming third season of Mad Men, but speaks of it as being at a point where the known world is shifting.

"What makes the show powerful is not nostalgia for an America that few want to bring back — where women were most valued as sex objects or subservient housewives, where blacks were, at best, second-class citizens, and where the hedonistic guzzling of gas and gin went unquestioned. Rather, it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change. “Mad Men” is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn. And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next."

As I have watched the Tea Party candidates, viewed hundreds of grainy ominous toned attack ads, read liberals attacking the president for not pursuing their agendas, and tried to make sense of it all, I keep coming back to Frank Rich last summer and Bill Moyers from 25 years ago. The Moyers reference goes back to his documentary days. He had travelled to Wisconsin to interview Briggs and Stratton employees whose jobs had been lost due to their plant closing and moving to Mexico. These were folks who'd played by the rules as they understood them, relied on the plant being there forever, and now found themselves with no options and few chances for retraining. It's as if we turned our back on a generation of good folks. And we're still doing so.

The things that we have known, or at least believed to be true, will not look the same in the decades to come. Let me offer some examples of changing times:

  1. Semi-skilled manufacturing job opportunities will continue to shrink
  2. Economic struggles in rural America will be felt more strongly than in suburban areas
  3. The family farm has been overtaken by agribusiness conglomerates
  4. Housing costs will not see the kinds of rapid growth of the past 10 years
  5. Construction will not return to its mid-2000 levels
  6. White Americans will be a demographic minority within 40 years, without considering the impacts of illegal immigration
  7. The percentage of folks with no religious affiliation is higher than it's ever been which in turn allows the rise of "atheist fundamentalists" like Richard Dawking
  8. The movies put out by Hollywood that draw the most attendees are things like Saw 7 and Jackass 3D
  9. There are more people with non-Christian faiths in America than ever before
  10. The financial sector is increasingly distant from everyday life (how many times has your bank been sold?) and the rules it uses benefit them and not us.

Okay, now I'm depressed.  But my point is that these changes are underway. And politicians, pundits, and journalists are not talking about them to help people prepare for these new realities. Is it any surprise that people feel like they're losing a semblance of control, "clinging" to symbols (real or not), and demanding to "take the country back"?

But like the Mad Men, there isn't a back to go to. 

This is the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future. In that wonderful movie (more so than the other two), Marty McFly is able to go back and change the past and improve his family situation. But Doc Brown was right -- you can't take that chance. Better to live where you are.

So we have some tough years ahead politically and socially. The sooner we begin to address the societal changes in positive and honest ways and move away from finger pointing and name calling the better we'll be. This is what Jon Stewart was talking about in his serious speech at yesterday's rally

The Times are in fact A-Changin, but it doesn't make it "The End of the World as We Know It" (apologies to REM).

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