When your country commits a collective insanity, it helps to be far from home in a foreign land. Ten years ago this month, I was in Cuba with the local Hemingway Foundation when Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election, and George W. Bush appeared to win the electoral vote (though not really). Two weeks ago, I spent the first Tuesday of November in Rome, far from the madding crowd who were so upset with our country’s current problems, they handed power back to the party that caused them.
If that sounds irrational, you’re right. As one wag put it, “When someone burns your house down, you don’t fire the new contractor because he didn’t rebuild it overnight and then hire the arsonist to finish the job.” Which pretty much sums up what the American electorate did on Nov. 2.
So it was less aggravating being far removed when the deed was done. Maybe I’ll plan all my future trips for Election Day.
Rome provided the proper vantage point from which to regard our folly. Visiting a culture that has lasted 3,000 years reminds you this too shall pass. Modern Italy is actually a young country, unified only in 1870, but Rome remains a virtual city-state — certainly a state of mind — which shrugs off temporary insanity. Romans have already committed every possible insanity and stupidity over the course of three millennia, and will commit more, no doubt, but they know somehow they’ll survive.
We are a young culture in comparison, and our inexperience shows. The rational thing to do when one side screws up badly (i.e. the Republicans) is to choose the alternative. The insane thing is not giving that alternative enough time (without unnecessary obstruction) to try a different approach. Or, if you’re fed up with both sides, vote for a third party. But you don’t go right back to the guys who brought you to the brink of a Depression, who haven’t learned a thing from their mistakes, and who intend to go right on doing the exact same things, expecting different results.
That, to say the least, would be foolish.
Being foolish, that’s just what we did. People are frustrated, scared, angry, and looking for someone to blame. Since many Americans hate government with a self-destructive passion, they voted for the party that also hates government, the Republicans, evidently believing the free market will turn the economy around and create more jobs.
But consider the three greatest job creators of the last 60 years:
1) the interstate highway system (Eisenhower administration, which is why our expressway is named after him),
2) the space program (Kennedy administration), and
3) the Internet (which started in the Pentagon).
What do they have in common? All began as initiatives of the federal government. Before that, it was World War II and FDR’s New Deal. Government again.
Our economic engine, it turns out, is not the free market. It’s the hated federal government. The free market, working in partnership with government, takes those sparks and turns them into industries, but you can’t have one without the other. So the smart thing would be to see what the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress can pull off in four or eight years — alternative energy and Green technology being the most promising prospects.
Instead, we voted for gridlock. That includes moderates who voted one way in 2008 and the other way this time (they have some ‘splainin’ to do) and some progressives who didn’t vote at all.
Contrary to what a lot of voters seem to think, voting is not the same as responding to a public opinion poll. It has real consequences. With this election, Americans sent the message that, in spite of the grave crisis this country faces, doing nothing for the next two years is better than doing something. Heads in the sand, they voted for political paralysis because they’re that scared and that angry and that confused.
And that dumb.
As a result, things will almost surely get worse in the short term and the rest of us will have to suffer the consequences. But the lesson from Rome is that, as the old CTA ad put it, in the long run, the long run is all that matters. In Rome, they don’t get worked up. Governments come and go, but the city rolls along. They don’t panic and pull the plug prematurely. They know things will work out. That’s where we differ.
And why Rome was a good place to be on Election Day.