Time to Shut Down the Anti-Government Extremists
By now barrels of ink and miles of ones-and-zeroes have been spilled parsing the “political narrative” of October’s 17-day-long shutdown of the federal government. But you can ignore most of what you heard from the capital’s political pundits. Here’s the thing to remember: This was not a classic Washington political “standoff,” “impasse,” “stalemate,” or any of the other euphemisms used to describe how Tea Party radicals tried to hold the country hostage to their hatred of federally subsidized health care.
No, this was the culmination of a long-held goal of a far-right faction that doesn’t just disapprove of government programs like protecting the environment or helping poor kids get enough to eat. These extremists don’t like government, period. One of their heroes, Grover Norquist, famously said he wanted “to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The specific strategy to kill health care by refusing to fund the government was carefully planned months earlier, at meetings convened by groups backed by the Koch brothers, the billionaires who, since 1997, have given $67 million to the climate-change denial movement.
The environment and public health took some of the most immediate hits from the shutdown. Hundreds of people in 18 states were sickened by a salmonella outbreak that wasn’t detected because the computer program that tracks food-borne illnesses was offline. More than 865,000 gallons of oil spilled in North Dakota but went unreported for more than a week because the agency that monitors pipeline safety was closed. With most EPA employees off the job, who knows how much hazardous waste and air pollution was quietly discharged from industrial pipes and smokestacks?
Try as I might, I can’t understand the logic of opposing government programs meant to ensure that our air, water, and food are safe, children aren’t hungry, and everyone has access to a doctor. I was once attacked by Glenn Beck as an anti-American zealot because, in The Story of Stuff, I said it’s the government’s job to take care of us. I didn’t mean government should remind us to floss our teeth and tuck us in at night. I meant take care of us by tackling the big problems that can’t be solved by individuals (or even charities), and by ensuring that the system is fair for everyone. Since I can’t personally monitor all the oil spills in America, I sleep better knowing that some of my tax dollars go for that essential task.
The anti-government extremists say the invisible hand of the marketplace can take care of these things, but history proves them wrong. It would be nice if Chevron cared as much about the health of communities downwind of its refineries as they say they do, but its actions demonstrate otherwise. Since I don’t get to vote for Chevron’s CEO, the only leverage I have is to vote for candidates who promise to regulate air pollution, and then work to hold those elected officials accountable. For government to work, elections must be decided by real people, not corporations, so we can put candidates in office who represent our values.
Look, I don’t like a lot of things about how our government works (or doesn’t work). Because of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United ruling, corporations that poison our environment and exploit workers are allowed to spend a fortune to influence elections and legislation. The agencies that are supposed to be watchdogs too often turn a blind eye, allowing dangerous products on the market and failing to protect consumers from predatory financial scams. Our government policies are ruled by the gospel of growth at all costs, instead of what will make citizens happier and healthier.
But when people tell me that they are disgusted with our dysfunctional government and are walking away from it – refusing to vote or pay attention to the news from Washington – I ask them: If someone hijacked your car and began driving it in reverse, mowing down people on the sidewalk, what would you do? Walk away, muttering, “That car sucks!” Or take your car back and get it moving in the right direction again?
This is what being an active citizen, as opposed to a passive consumer, is all about: Recognizing that “of the people, by the people, for the people” aren’t just words from a textbook, but a charge to all of us to work together to find solutions to the things that are broken in our country and our world. That’s the way to make our government work for us.
Annie Leonard’s newest film is available at www.storyofsolutions.org.