Notes From A Hate-Thy-Neighbor Political Culture

I thought I had a good idea. An obvious idea. An idea with a lot of natural and timely appeal. It involved too-big-to-fail banks.

A couple of months back the Senate, in a highly unusual bipartisan move, unanimously passed a resolution. In vague and general terms this resolution called for the break up of too-big-to-fail banks. Being just a resolution, of course, it had no force of law.

Then this April, two senators came forward with an actual legislative proposal that would, in essence, remove the implicit too-big-to-fail guarantee government provides for this country’s largest banks. The sponsors of this measure were Sherrod Brown, a very liberal Democrat from Ohio, and David Vitter, a very conservative Republican from Louisiana.

Changing from the high-minded sounding blather of a resolution to something that could actually dramatically change government policy toward huge banks immediately ended senatorial unanimity. The flagrantly misnamed “centrists” in both major parties immediately prepared to smother this legislation.

No surprise there. Today’s Washington centrists go to great lengths to protect the interests of Wall Street and its biggest banks. These institutions are a reliable source of much funding for centrist campaigns. Even more important to these Beltway worthies, they provide very highly paid sinecures in the form of corporate board memberships, big buck speaking engagements, lobbying gigs, hugely overcompensated academic posts, et. al. after centrists leave their well paid government work to take exorbitantly compensated gratuities for services rendered to Wall Street while they were still in the government’s employ.

Brown-Vitter thus faced a near certain disappearing act. But I had this idea how to give it a better shot at survival.

My notion was simple. I would get left-leaning groups in the Philadelphia area where I live to very publicly come together with right-leaning groups in the area to announce their support for Brown-Vitter. I figured the press would jump all over this. Two political groupings that are supposed to hate each other backing the same bill. No new war erupts in the Middle East that week, this one could have legs.

A gimmick, sure. But gimmicks gave rise to both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. And I live in Philadelphia. And Rocky took a chance. Yo!

This local action and its media spin-off, I hoped, would be replicated around the country. Brown-Vitter would get a much needed publicity boost. Washington’s centrists would start having to explain why they opposed a too-big-to-fail law not only backed by left and right, but supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans in the middle.

Maybe, just maybe, I also hoped, other areas where wings of our highly fractured political culture actually do agree might come to the fore and make this country a tad more governable. No change of every strongly held view required. No need to do a phony all encompassing group huggie huggie. Just a few genuinely needed moves to achieve mutually agreed upon ends. You know. Like sane people do it.

Such were my hopes. Here’s what I did. And here’s what happened.

The other day I had a meeting in Center City Philadelphia with some people who had seen an article of mine in a local blat about a different political issue, and who wanted to talk about it. In the discussion that followed I mentioned Brown-Vitter. These were highly sophisticated Democratic Party operatives. They nonetheless had never heard of the Brown-Vitter bill. I was amazed.

That was in the morning. That evening I went to a meeting of another liberal group that focuses mainly on city and state issues. It’s members are all activists, acquainted with the activities of other activists, with issues of interest to other activists generally. I mentioned my belief that Brown-Vitter was an exceptionally important piece of progressive legislation, and that this group might come together with a local conservative group, perhaps a local Tea Party, in hopes of using this joint clout to help Brown-Vitter on its way.

No one in this group of liberal activists had heard of Brown-Vitter either. Nor, for that matter, though they were interested in the idea, did anyone there know who might be contacted “on the other side” to follow up on my suggestion.

Here’s some conclusions I’ve reached from these personal encounters.

Brown-Vitter is not a hidden piece of legislation, buried in the current morass of congressional legislative hopes and shams. There have been excellent pieces done about it in The New York Times and a number of other high profile media. What has been lacking, however, is the all-important amplification from the highly organized and effective get-out-the-word-to-the-media machinery controlled by both Democratic and Republic centrists. The talk radio, Sunday TV, the phone and email contact files employed to raise money and get the troops riled up on issues party controllers want their troops focused on. Lack of this amplification is the reason why the people I spoke with had never heard of this particular piece of legislation, much less been encouraged to fight for it in the best ways possible.

I also got the very strong impression that communication between right and left in this country is now less and less of a person-to-person affair during which shared beliefs and traits as well as differences might be recognized. Rather, the “hate-thy-political-neighbor” business has become one of this country’s real growth industries, one that prospers by fostering anger and misunderstanding among Americans to the greatest extent possible.

I think this industry sucks. I disagree with a lot of other Americans, sometimes strongly, on a lot of issues. But I don’t hate them. Indeed, I think we can get together on a lot of things in ways that advance many shared priorities and beliefs, Brown-Vitter being one example.

That old proverb applies in politics as well as war. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

So let’s do it. Occupy Wall Street or MoveOn, find your local Tea Party organization. Or maybe Tea Party do it the other way around. Use Brown-Vitter to put the screws to the best-and-brightest on Wall Street. Rest assured, if you don’t, big banks on The Street will continue doing it to you.

(My new novel, Murder At Bernstein’s, is available from Amazon)

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One thought on “Notes From A Hate-Thy-Neighbor Political Culture

  1. The Independent Community Bankers of America might support it. Trouble is, it’s a good idea, so it is doomed from the start.

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