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America Hasn't Shifted Left. It's Just Become More Adolescent
"I think that you should pay for your own mortgage, birth control, and college loans. I don't think that because I'm Conservative, I think that because I'm an adult."
I saw that message posted somewhere on the Internet a couple of weeks ago. The phrasing really stuck with me because I believe it correctly captured what has become the true ideological divide in this country. That divide, contrary to popular belief, is not between conservatism and liberalism.
Many people would probably disagree with me. They would point to the hyper-partisan talking heads in the media as being representative of profound clash of ideologies in our country. Many liberals would probably cite the re-election of President Obama, and public sourness on the Republican party, as evidence that liberalism is actually winning that battle.
I just don't see it that way.
While I think it's safe to say that Americans are becoming more socially liberal, that seems to be the extent of the electorate's conversion. For many years, just about any time a national polling company has asked participants to self-identify with an ideology, twice as many people have considered themselves to be conservative than have liberal. That hasn't changed. This holds true not only in the broad sense, but also when it comes to important topics like the economy and national security.
One would think that such statistics would give the Republican party hope that a political return to power in Washington is realistic. What I'm not so sure the party has grasped, however, is that liberalism isn't really the hurdle that is standing in their way.
We're at a point in our history when too many people have become dangerously comfortable clinging to their inner-adolescence. Like children, many adults in our society are content with trusting other people (in this case, government) to be responsible for taking care of them. I'm not simply talking about government dependence, though that's indeed an enormous problem. I'm also talking about people who are just too self-involved and irresponsible to care about what's going on around them and the important issues that very much affect their lives.
We're provided with examples of such people from time to time when we see a late-night comedian, or occasionally a Fox News personality, run one of those man on the street segments where they ask random people about current events. We may cringe and even chuckle at how little they know, but for me, the display is more frightening than anything. It's frightening because these people actually vote in elections. They make up an increasing portion of the electorate and they're rarely guided by political ideology.
Where their obliviousness comes from isn't all that hard to understand.
Many unengaged people tend to assume that by living in a country as great and affluent as America, the big picture stuff is always going to be just fine, regardless of what the decision-makers in Washington are doing. So when they decide on who they want to lead our country, they're not all that concerned with records of achievement and policies. That's boring stuff - too in the weeds. These people want to be dazzled. They want to be courted with charisma and celebrity, just as a child would choose to pop in a DVD rather than sit through a severe weather alert.
I understand this mindset because I shared it up until about 13 years ago. Back then, I didn't think it mattered who led our country because by the time I was old enough to even broadly grasp American politics, Ronald Reagan was already our president. He paved the way for relative global peace and a strong U.S. economy that I just figured would always be there. I took our prosperity and security for granted. I naively believed that no one was capable of screwing up that harmony and bringing our nation to its knees.
Obviously, I was wrong.
We now find ourselves living in a post 9/11 world where Al Qaeda is rising from the embers. We went through the Great Recession and are now in the fifth year of the slowest economic recovery in American history - essentially a jobless one. Part-time positions are becoming more common while full-time positions are going away. Leaders in Washington have driven our national debt up to $17 trillion, and it's a continually worsening burden that our children will be carrying around with them for the rest of their lives. Our social safety nets are drying up, as is our relevance to the rest of the world.
Times have clearly changed. That's why I find it absolutely stunning that there are so many Americans who still view our nation's greatest challenges with the aloofness and impulsiveness of a child. It's mind-boggling, really.
You've got to hand it to the Democrats. They understand all of this. They've kept their edge on the national scene in recent years, not by selling the electorate on liberal sensibilities and policies, but by doing an excellent job of tapping into people's inner-adolescence. They've catered to it.
The party understands that they can own the narrative on concepts like fairness and justice merely by playing off of people's instinctive jealousy. They act as the sadistic day-care worker who causes a frenzy by accusing the child with the most Legos of stealing from the other children.
The party understands how to stoke an entitlement mindset by conflating disbursement with accessibility. When a child can't buy a toy because he already spent his allowance, and his parents don't give him the money to buy it, the Democrats act as the store employee behind the register who whispers to the child, "Your parents don't want you to have that toy because they don't like you."
The party understands that adolescent adults are just as easily distracted as actual children, as long as the object being held out in front of them is shiny enough. They understand that people are less impressed with the guy who works his butt off at two jobs to provide for his family, than they are the guy with a hundred-thousand Twitter followers.
The party understands that a good chunk of adults view our national debt the same way a teenager with his first credit card views his account balance. Their message is: "Sure, that's a lot of money you owe, but don't worry. There's plenty of time to deal with it. Treat yourself to something nice! The problem will work itself out somehow."
Such audacity would be laughed off by mature adults, but not by adolescent ones. On them, it works. And it has nothing to do with political ideology.
To be fair, Republicans try this type of thing from time to time too, but boy are they bad at it. Any time we hear them complain about the nice things President Obama gets to do on his birthday while Americans are out of work, I have to shake my head. It's such a petty, childish complaint - especially in the context of all of the very serious damage the president's policies and lack of leadership are doing to this country.
Policies and leadership: Those are the things that people should be concerned with. But the adult-adolescents have as much interest in them as my own children do. I can't think of a more devastating blow to democracy than that.