MONROEVILLE, Al. — The drought is severe here and the weather miserably hot, with temperatures reaching triple digits frequently this summer. That’s what occupies ordinary folk in my small hometown.
My mom’s friends and neighbors talk about the crops that are withering in the fields — corn stalks turning brown, cotton seed too parched to sprout. They talk about Casey Anthony’s culpability in the death of her young daughter. They talk about jobs. Or the lack of them.
They don’t talk about the federal deficit or the debt-ceiling negotiations that consume the nation’s capital. They are too worried about their own household budgets to fret about the federal treasury.
Spending a week here has reminded me of the stark divide between ordinary Americans and the representatives they send to Washington to serve their interests. Here in the real America — at least the part of it that is in decline — the inside-the-Beltway political gamesmanship, competing news conferences and tactical signals intended for partisan activists don’t matter much at all. Those are the preoccupations of a political class more concerned about its own future than that of its constituents.
In this town of shuttered textile mills and limited options, people talk of foreclosures, of driving two hours each way to a job with decent wages, of helping a daughter or nephew or grandchild who just lost a job and health insurance along with it. They wonder about the neighbor who just got a pink slip. Will he be able to keep paying his mortgage? And what about the house across the street that has been empty for two years?
This is a deeply conservative region, and its denizens tend to send rightwing Republicans to Congress. The area has its tea party activists — partisans who blame the federal government for every economic malady and every public policy failure that trickles down to the locals. But their rhetoric, too, miscasts the practices and preferences of ordinary folk.
Oh, many people around these parts will tell you that they despise the “guv-mint.” But that word is reserved for the policies and agencies — real or imagined — that they oppose: the Environmental Protection Agency and its regulations, the Internal Revenue Service, the presumed secret agency that is readying a plan to confiscate all firearms.
But just as polls show that most Americans, including conservatives, support spending on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, so do people here. With an aging and needy population, hospitals and physicians depend on Medicare to keep their doors open. Area nursing homes are funded largely by Medicaid.
With jobs hard to come by, the recipients of Social Security disability checks are proliferating. And the drought will likely make government payments to farmers even more popular than they’ve been in the past.
It’s a safe assumption that most locals would oppose raising the federal debt ceiling, but that’s probably because — as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said — they don’t understand that it’s necessary for the federal government to pay off old debts, not new ones. They may have forgotten that a war they supported years ago — the invasion of Iraq — left the country with unpaid bills.
These voters are not innately irresponsible or oddly ignorant. But they’ve been misused by politicians who refuse to look them in the eye and tell them the truth: There is no simple solution to the instability created by global economic forces and no overnight fix for the deficits acquired over a decade. We know you sent us to Washington to solve these problems, but they are more difficult than we knew.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that voters here would applaud those lines with enthusiasm, but I think they’d listen. These are hardworking and long-suffering small-towners, used to making do and getting by. I think they could handle the truth if only their public servants could.