Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting sponsored by Rep. Steve Womack (Republican) of our 3rd Congressional District (Northwest Arkansas). The room would comfortably hold thirty people. Over 200 showed up. With the hallways and doorways and standing room thronged, half the people ended up standing outside in the parking lot for the 1.5 hour event. In light rain and a heavy temper.
Womack could have taken charge of the situation by reconvening five blocks away in the much larger community center. He chose not to do so. He could have opened the meeting by immediately taking questions, but instead he spent at least twenty minutes talking about his agenda. His primary concern was the national debt which he elaborated citing numbers and projections intended to shock and awe.
Not surprising for Col. Womack, a 30-year national guard veteran who commanded the 2nd Battalion, 153rd Infantry, 39th Separate Infantry Brigade in the Sinai, Egypt, between 2002 and 2009. He’s a member of Cross Church, earthly kingdom of Ronnie Floyd who has served in a leadership role of the world’s largest Southern Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States, with over 15 million members as of 2016. Womack is a poster child for the right wing.
The Arkansas 3rd district rolled to the Republican side in 1967 following continuous Democratic control since Reconstruction and has remained in Republican hands ever since. Only a couple of times have strong Democratic candidates come close (1992: 47.2% to 50.2%) to regaining the seat while generally Republicans enjoy over 70% majority on Election Day. Womack is serving his fourth term.
Despite this position of strength for Womack, the crowd wasn’t having it. In a surly mood in a room whose temperature approached one hundred degrees due to severe overcrowding, people jostled signs, interrupted, and talked over Rep. Womack in what became the norm for the entire exchange. His temper flared on occasion, telling people to shut-up and reiterating his party line position on issues ranging from the EPA to National Endowment for the Arts to Medicare. Less than a quarter of those who wanted to ask questions were actually able to do so before his ‘drop dead’ quit time of 10 a.m.
Driving home, I kept wondering what people actually expected. Did anyone think for an instant that he would agree to demands that he personally ‘do something’ about the ‘man-child Trump,’ as one speaker requested? Did anyone think that he would suddenly veer off the positions in which the political right has grown increasingly entrenched for the last fifty years?
I didn’t. I know lots of people like him. They’re my relatives and my neighbors. They’re positive they’re right. Nothing is going to change them.
But after a lifetime of advocacy on various impossible causes (women’s rights, environment, and most recently drug policy reform), I remain optimistic that in some small demilitarized zone between right and left, a productive dialogue can lead to some understanding. At the least, a grudging mutual respect.
Few in the crowd seemed to understand that philosophy. They had an ax to grind in their outrage over Donald Trump and his agenda. They wanted to shout and hurl accusations. Whatever ground might have been gained in building a tenuous link of communication died under the stomping feet of those who only wanted to protest what has come to be the current reality: Republicans control the government.
Despite a few well-considered questions that earned a thoughtful response from Rep. Womack, less than a quarter of those who kept raising hands ever had a chance to speak. Womack avoided replying to demands for increasing taxes on the so-called ‘one percent’ as he explaining how government had exceeded its mandate and was spending two-thirds of its income on ‘mandatory’ programs compared to the 1960s when mandatory only consumed one third.
Womack, along with the Republican majority, condemn food stamps and other social support programs as well as protections for waterways and the air we breathe. This isn’t a new conflict. It’s been picking up steam for five decades. Aligned on the side of the protesters are the progressives who—many of them—have worked to enact those very programs. Aligned on Womack’s side are those who see those programs as a symptom of moral decay.
Railing about the national debt is a convenient cover for such moralistic thinking. Every president since Calvin Coolidge had added to the national debt, most recently George W. Bush by 101% and Obama by 68%. The elephant in the room (literally) is the wars started by Bush after 9/11. The cost of the Iraq War tops two trillion and in Afghanistan, over four trillion with no end in sight.
As we all know, financing what we want when we want it ends up with the ugly reality of paying off debt without getting anything in return. With interest. This is the staggering problem keeping Womack and other legislators awake at night, Democrats among them. But while the portion of national revenues dedicated to mandatory spending has increased, military spending now gobbles up fifty percent of discretionary spending. So while Womack et al set their sights on cutting other discretionary spending such as public broadcasting, none of them mention the possibility of letting the Middle East sink or swim on its own.
Republicans seem hell bent on continuing to wage war on behalf of Israel and oil, throwing in the specter of terrorism and a nuclear Iran for good measure. The truth is, none of these ‘reasons’ hold water. The U. S. could fully withdraw from the Middle East without suffering any real threat here at home. But that would outrage the special interests: military contractors, oil sheikdoms, the Israel lobby, and a hypnotized electorate who equates patriotism and war.
Unless we culturally divest from war, even a massive cut in non-military discretionary spending would do little to offset the debt, much less make a dent in the mandatory side of the scales. And while Social Security and Medicare are theoretically paid for through payroll tax deductions, the increasingly longer projected life expectancy of Americans means that people far outlive the amount they’ve paid in. Fewer workers paying for increasing numbers of retirees leads to the brick wall ahead.
One of the main arguments raised against Womack’s insistence on cutting programs, including ‘restructuring’ mandatory spending programs, was the repeated cry to increase taxes on the rich. He never once acknowledged the question or attempted to answer. The facts are that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the time praised by Womack when mandatory spending only constituted about a third of the national revenue, the wealthiest Americans paid a top income tax rate of 91%. Today, the top rate is 43.4%. In 2014, after deductions, the richest one-percent paid an effective federal income tax rate of 24.7%.
Loopholes which allow billionaires like Trump to pay zero taxes have been skillfully placed into the tax code by cooperative legislators benefiting from generous campaign contributions and other perks. These same legislators prize their own interests above their constituents, catering to corporate profits instead of forcing lower prices on essentials like prescription drugs. This outrages Americans, causes distrust in government, and propels a demagogue like Trump into power.
Meanwhile, in the guise of addressing the debt, Republicans gleefully set about righting the perceived moral decay they’ve campaigned on since Ronald Reagan. They’re eager to cut federal spending for Planned Parenthood (further restrict abortion rights), public radio and television (stifle the progressive agenda), and especially social support programs like unemployment and food stamps (force slackers to work), but such changes promise little more than a drop in the bucket of deficits.
As in yesterday’s meeting with Womack, progressives repeatedly fail to make a strong case for their agenda or provide meaningful solutions to the nation’s fiscal distress. Angry demonstrations only delay what progressives must do to take back leadership of the political spectrum. We must show why improving conditions for the poor, the jobless, and the weakest among us is the only path to solvency, why strong environmental protection must be preserved, why women must be allowed to decide who gets born.
These arguments must be made, and in order for them to gain purchase in the near term, dialogue with elected officials like Womack is essential. Public tantrums are counterproductive. In the long term, refinement of and spirited advocacy for progressive policies will form the platform by which a progressive political party can regain control. Among us, we must find those willing to sacrifice themselves to the public arena as candidates capable of inciting voters’ imaginations with such an agenda.
Then will be the time to shout.