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Opinion: The Next Big Thing

Poli Psy


Published November 10, 2010 at 6:55 a.m.


Why do people vote against their own interests? How can so many Americans be against health care? It's like being against food, or houses. And what about this epidemic taxaphobia? Don't people know that without taxes they'd be choking on pollution and shitting in outhouses?

I've been reflecting — no, anguishing — over these questions most of my adult life, but especially since last Tuesday. Chances are you've been doing the same.

So here's a clue to the answers, which I found in the New York Times dining section: salt.

I read about a new shop in Manhattan that purveys 100 kinds of salt and 400 kinds of chocolate. You can have a sampler of the former — 50 varieties — for a mere $298. Chocolate bars run from $2 to $25.

Is salt the Next Big Thing? I wondered. Are Lilliputian cupcakes now passé? How about Barack Obama, or government investment to kickstart a recovery?

You're still rooting for Obama? Still like the stimulus — even think it should have been bigger?

OMG. You are so 2008.

Even Obama, in his press conference the day after the elections, looked as if he was on to the next thing. The recovery hasn't been fast enough, he said. His administration hadn't created enough jobs. He welcomed “good ideas” from Republicans.

Of course, eating humble pie was part of the mandatory political theater. And — as the Times accurately put it — the president's tone was “conciliatory but not contrite.” He didn't roll over on the correctness of his policies (though reporters pressed him to do so) or promise to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (though many pundits predict he will). Obviously, Obama has not forgotten that that “good” Republican idea — tax cuts, tax cuts and more tax cuts — helped create the gargantuan deficit his opponents are now so breathless to reduce.

But most voters apparently have forgotten. Or maybe they can't concentrate long enough to weigh the options. (Excuse me. My cell is vibrating. It's a tweet from Sarah Palin!) They're frustrated, Obama said. If you ask me, it's more like pitching a tantrum.

Impatience was not born yesterday. It is an old American trait — one that struck Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited this continent in 1831. Presciently, de Tocqueville connected Americans' desire for “physical gratification” with their chronic “restlessness” and “inconstancy” of action and thought — and their sadness. “It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare,” he wrote, “and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.” He saw Americans lurching this way and that in search of the path and the pot of gold at its end.

Now, de Tocqueville did not condemn the material appetites that mobilized America's infant capitalism. Indeed, he was the original neoliberal. He believed that free markets were the soil in which democracy grew, and political freedom was a prerequisite for economic health (he hadn't traveled to communist-capitalist China). He wasn't against pursuing personal fortunes. The danger, as he saw it, was in pursuing nothing but.

Selfish preoccupation imperiled the young democracy, he warned. While everyone is busy boosting the bottom line, a tyrant can easily come to power. The tyrant may bring about general prosperity, but only to solidify his power. Once the people glimpse wealth, they will want only to safeguard it. They will demand order above all. At that point, the tyrant “will find the road to every kind of usurpation open before him.” Next come corruption, political repression and the resurgence of an unaccountable aristocracy. Bye-bye, democracy; bye-bye general prosperity.

Individuals are not the only despots to be feared, said de Tocqueville: “When the bulk of the community [is] engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs.”

Are images coming to your mind? In the first scenario, do you see the smirking visage of Dick Cheney? In the second, do you hear a crowd of Teabaggers cheering Rand Paul?

Viewed under the Tocquevillian lens, our own newest “smallest party” looks even scarier, not only because of what its adherents intend but because of the unintended consequences of their politics. Tea Party members would sell the Washington Monument (or, as in Arizona's case, the Statehouse; or California's, the supreme courthouse) to shave a few bucks from their tax bills. They are focused, big time, on their personal fortunes.

But they aren't threatening democracy by their apathy (if only they'd care a little less!). Rather, they're also zealous for political power. So, with the Koch brothers in the engine room, they're pushing the likes of Jim DeMint to the helm.

A glance at the South Carolina senator's voting record reveals a man not quite as uncomfortable with big government as he claims. He'd prosecute more juvenile offenders, would let the CIA tap phones without a warrant, and has never met a military boondoggle he wouldn't shovel money into. Nor is he exactly the working man's friend. While voting no on raising the minimum wage to $7.25, he declined to nix tax subsidies to companies that move U.S. jobs offshore. While opposing extensions of unemployment insurance, he supported extensions of subsidies to oil and gas companies.

This “grassroots” movement (funded by billionaires, with an outreach committee staffed by Fox News) is electing its own tinhorn tyrants. Once in office, they will look out for their patrons, the unaccountable aristocracy — after Citizens United, less accountable than ever.

Then what will happen to "we the people"? To paraphrase Christine O'Donnell, "You're telling me that 'the people' are in the Constitution?"

When my niece was a toddler, I once asked her if she wanted apple juice or orange juice. She looked at both bottles. Then she said, "I want the other one."

Americans want the other one, the next one, the new one. They want it for themselves, and they want it now. It doesn't matter if the other one is no better, or is even worse. In fact, for the people who got elected to government to dismantle government, worse is better.

America is rubbing salt in its wounds. It's designer salt in the latest lovely colors and textures. But it is salt. And it will hurt, a lot and for a long time.