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Looking out for the little guy

Essay by Martha Quillen

Politics – October 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHAT TRAITS make a candidate viable? What does it take to be a contender?

Having been the opposite of an outgoing, trailblazing, student-body-president type all my life, I never gave much thought to running for office. But now that Sarah Palin’s on the scene, I’m beginning to reconsider my attributes.

I thought a person would have to be exceptional, well-educated, well-traveled and well-versed in foreign and domestic affairs to be a U.S. Presidential running mate. But as it turns out, it’s enough to be clever, ebullient, ambitious, and gutsy.

Of course, I’m not those things, but I am a little better read than Sarah Palin. And when push comes to shove, I think I’m better at faking responses to gotcha questions when I don’t quite know the answer.

To be honest, though, I don’t think I’m ready for the Vice-Presidency.

And I don’t think Palin is either. Although Palin clearly has a lot of admirable qualities — poise, presence, nerve, charm, courage, enthusiasm, and youth — she is also unknown, untested, under investigation, and a political evangelist, which I view as just plain wrong.

Palin seems dangerously eager to impose her personal religious beliefs on others, which would be fine if she were applying for a ministry. But it strikes me as unAmerican, totalitarian, and even downright unChristian, for a leader of the United States of America to attempt to suppress movies, books, scientific research, knowledge and thought in accordance with the canon of a powerful religious lobby. (God gave man free will, but given enough time, the Religious Right will take it away.)

Churches clearly have the right to define what’s acceptable for their followers. But aren’t Americans supposed to be free to follow their own conscience? Their own faith? Their own God?

I get a little weary of right-wing zealots who think that they have a monopoly on morality, ethics, and righteousness. In fact, such political maneuvering seems decidedly undemocratic and ungodly. As I see it, if God had wanted to command rather than inspire his followers, he would have smote Lucifer, Herod, the Romans, and all the rest of the infidels, then set up a world government to make everyone carry out his bidding.

But he didn’t. That’s not the way the book goes, and what’s more, the God depicted in the New Testament is not on our side — or their side, or anyone’s side, in war or peace. The very concept of Christianity embraces the promise that everyone on every side can appeal to Christ for compassion, understanding, peace, and love.

Or at least that’s the way it was presented when I was a child. But perhaps I’ve merely forgotten the part about Jesus nuking the Romans and doling out guns with those loaves and fishes.

In truth, I am appalled by what modern American politicking has done to our old-time religion — converting it into a justification for war, hatred and vengeance.

I not only don’t believe in that religion; I don’t believe it should be called “Christian.”

Nor do I believe that Sarah Palin is particularly moral or ethical. But that’s okay, right? Sarah Palin isn’t God — so I don’t have to believe in her.

According to the McCain campaign, not supporting her doubtlessly makes me sexist. But that’s okay, too, because I think she’d make a lousy Vice-President and even worse President.

Yet I suspect that the people who greeted Sarah Palin with flags, cheers, and joy had plenty of reason.

And that’s a whole ‘nuther issue — an issue I think left-wing Democrats like myself should consider. And perhaps even answer for.

WHY IS THERE such a divisive culture war in our country? What is all this business with red and blue? Right and left? Liberal and conservative?

Currently, the Republicans are the mean team — easy to aggravate, quick to anger, and righteous in their wrath. But looking back, they have their reasons.

Democrats used to be the labor party, the party of the people, the advocate for the little guy. Yet the Democrats didn’t seem to care when the mines closed, the factories shut, and the great midwestern industrial jobs moved away. All the Democrats seemed to care about was the environment. In Rush Limbaugh terms, they were just a bunch of egg-sucking hippie liberals who didn’t care at all about an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

In the late 1960s, the Democratic Party moved away from representing labor, and started advocating for women and minorities, instead.

And disgruntled workers have been backlashing ever since — with ample justification. Although the Republican Party eagerly recruited the working man, it never really embraced his cause. Thus labor has been faltering for decades. The working classes have gotten poorer and poorer, and neither party has done much to slow their descent.

As a workers’ party, the Republicans have been cruelly lacking — because it’s pretty much impossible to represent big business, captains of industry, and wage-earners. But Democrats share the blame for the woeful position of the American laborer — since Democrats presumably champion the downtrodden.

BUT IN THE 1970s and ’80s, Democrats were too busy defending newcomers to the workplace to look after old-timers — and sometimes newcomers and old-timers were in direct competition. For workers, modern economic gurus like Alan Greenspan have dictated a raw deal — without adequate pay, benefits, or protection.

And lately, there’s been an outcry accusing Barack Obama of being elitist. The intended message is that Obama isn’t the workers’ best candidate. But that’s both unfair and untrue. Obama is addressing the concerns of poor Americans, and working Americans, and unemployed Americans. Obama’s platform emphasizes safeguarding jobs, wages, pension plans and Social Security. His economic proposals are designed to benefit working Americans and small businesses. And his tax plan calls for tax cuts for the working classes.

Just last week, McCain called himself a deregulator. But that was before the Republicans devotion to less government, less regulation, and less taxation for the wealthy sank our entire economy. Now, McCain doesn’t sound too sure about what kind of economy he’ll support. But whatever it is, you can be sure it will wrack up trillion-dollar deficits — because that’s the only choice the Republicans have left us with.

This year, both the DNC and the RNC featured people aplenty, telling stories of economic woe. They’d lost their jobs, homes, pensions, limbs, loved ones and GI benefits — and were unable to pay for health care, pharmaceuticals, and bare necessities.

The 2008 conventions played out like old episodes of Queen for a Day, with each horrifying true tale of calamity topped by another, all followed by enthusiastic applause — but without the applause-o-meter. (And one can only hope that some enterprising merchant sent some of those unfortunates washing machines.)

But out here in the hinterlands, where a frightening percentage of people don’t have 401Ks, stock portfolios, savings, health insurance, adequate wages, or steady work, what are the Democrats most concerned about?

Important matters, to be sure: global warming, recycling, conservation trusts, trails, golf courses, Wal-Marts, big box stores, sprawl, and development.

Those are crucial issues. But we seem to have lost our perspective.

In his column this month, George Sibley insists it’s imperative that every American face facts — especially the real facts about global warming. He claims that we are in denial. Yet a 2008 poll published by the University of Denver reveals that 80% of respondents believe global warming is happening; 61% believe the U.S. government should do more about it; 68% believe the U.S. should take action even if other major countries refuse, and 71% are trying to reduce their own carbon footprint.

So are we doing right by our environment?

No, clearly not. But that’s probably not because we’re in denial. It’s more likely because we seem to believe that our sincere belief in global warming can make a difference — which it might, if the topic on the table were sin, repentance, redemption, and the destination of our immortal souls.

But the topic is global warming, which demands action — not reverence.

TALK ABOUT INCONVENIENT TRUTHS: Global warming is not a religion; so it doesn’t really matter how fervently you believe in it. What matters is what you do about it.

Concerned citizens approach global warming differently. George participates in grass roots organizations that foster community efforts. Others collect cans. Some install solar collectors. But the most common approach is carping, and that’s clearly counter-productive.

Environmental awareness is growing and inspiring a whole new sustainability movement — and also conservation, alternative energy sources, new technology, solar solutions, green products, cleaner fuels, energy symposiums, energy fairs, and energy-efficient homes. Who knows what might be next? Maybe simpler lifestyles, staying home, public transit, shorter work weeks, or living near where you work.

In the meantime, dwelling upon who’s not in step, merely serves to faction the following and fracture the momentum.

Perhaps the most inconvenient truth that Democrats need to face is that movies about global warming that feature rich guys riding around in private jets and giant SUVs while lecturing other Americans about conservation offend a lot of people — and are laughable.

In fact, I suspect a healthy proportion of Coloradans resent Aspenites, Boulderites and other assorted liberals who castigate others for ignoring environmental issues, while they feed their own conspicuously excessive lifestyles.

Ed’s Dad is a case in point. He’s an opinionated old-timer, disdainful of environmentalists, suspicious of New Deal ideas, and still holding a grudge against FDR. But I suspect his carbon footprint is minuscule compared to the average Democrat’s. Ed’s parents were the first people I knew to switch to low-flow toilets. They keep their home ten degrees colder than I can stand; they grow their own tomatoes and squash. They are depression-era Americans, thrifty about most everything. They reuse boxes, bags, paper cups, and plastic plates. They recycle; they reheat their leftovers, and they wouldn’t dream of replacing their cupboards or furniture as long as there is material left to repaint and refinish.

Do Ed’s folks know about global warming? Of course they do. They read newspapers, and are generally pretty quick about adapting energy-saving, cost-cutting, and carbon-reducing measures. Yet I suspect they would be loathe to talk about the environment. And no matter what you say, you’ll never talk Ed’s dad into giving up his motorized waterfall or favorite vehicle. But what difference does that make? He lives by the motto “waste not, want not” — and keeps his power usage to a minimum.

Clearly, one inconvenient and very strange truth about environmentalism is that those who disdain the movement and say they don’t believe in it, are frequently doing more about it than those who preach it.

ANOTHER INCONVENIENT TRUTH that Democrats frequently fail to recognize is that small rural communities can’t necessarily afford the very best.

These are hard times for a lot of people — Democrats and Republicans. And lest anyone forget, these are especially hard times for people trying to make a living in our region. The median household income in Chaffee County in 2005 was $36,879 (in comparison to Colorado’s $50,652), which means that half our households didn’t get that much.

But that makes us lucky. The average median wage in nearby Saguache County was $27,358. Or are we lucky? Those are our neighbors — the people who shop here, work here, and rely on services here. We are a community, and things are not looking very good for a lot of us right now.

All across the country, grocery prices are up, real estate prices are falling, and banks are in trouble. So what does that mean for Salida? Who knows? Downtown business is down a little. Gas prices are high. Our new hospital needs more business. A lot of buildings seem to be languishing — half-renovated. It’s unclear what will happen to our local construction industry, or to our proposed golf courses, or to people’s investments and pensions.

YET OUR SCHOOL DISTRICT has proposed a twenty-five million dollar bond issue. The good news? Residents don’t have to opt for everything. They can pick and chose.

— And I sincerely hope local residents will chose to send the district back to the drawing table to devise a realistic budget, rather than a optimistic wish list.

Yes, our students deserve excellent schools and our teachers should get better pay. But in Colorado, property taxes weigh harder on businesses than on residents, and most Salida businesses are small and fragile — and already facing a likely recession. Pass the current bond issue, and we may be living with a boarded up downtown for years to come.

At this point, it is doubtlessly best to wait and see before we incur more debt for our friends and neighbors.

Come November, I plan to vote for Obama. I’m hoping that he really can bring us together, and help us foster co-operation and solutions.

The only thing that’s clear about McCain’s current position is that he’s angry — at Washington, at liberals, at lobbyists, at Obama, the media, the establishment….

The problem with our sound-bite driven, name-calling, overly partisan political system is that it isolates citizens until they tend to be downright dismissive and disdainful about other people’s viewpoints and situations.

Republicans get to thinking that they are holier than Democrats. Democrats get to thinking that they are smarter than Republicans. Yet history indicates that people who are politically active are seldom actually smarter or holier than anyone else. They are merely more influential — and all too often, they are wrong.

May we, however, find a way to heal both our economy and our planet.

Let all of us who turn off lights, and turn down thermostats, and walk instead of ride, be vigilant. Let those of us who pray, pray. Let those who meditate, meditate. And may we honor all those who sacrifice comfort today for a better tomorrow.

But most importantly, may we refrain from heaping blame upon our fellows, and from overburdening and overtaxing them, and from inadvertently and without intent adding to their difficulties, because with greater compassion and understanding, maybe we can work together.

Until then: “Raise a glass to the hard-working people. Let’s drink to the Salt of the Earth.” Because life has surely gotten tougher for the little guy.