One of the critical lessons from the debt ceiling debacle is not to underestimate the Tea Party's influence on Washington policymakers.
But perhaps even more alarming was the strikingly willful disdain many Tea Party activists demonstrated towards some of the rationally indisputable facts at the center of the policy debate.
I saw this phenomenon firsthand on the virtual pages of this very website. Last week, frustrated by my failure to find my teenage daughter a simple explanation of the budget crisis online, I decided to pen one myself. My column, Debt Ceiling for Dummies, was an attempt to provide a dispassionate, non-partisan guide to the sometimes archaic, and often complex, subject matter associated with the credit default debate. As a former state Treasurer and CFO, I hoped to share what I've learned from a myriad of experiences dealing with concepts like debt limits and credit ratings.
But as is far too typical in today's blogosphere, my article provoked an avalanche of bitter invective in the comments section of this site, my own blog, and even my personal Facebook page. I was called a "liar," a "fraud," even an intimate of the international conspiracy to fool real Americans and rob them of their hard-earned savings.
My more than two decades of politics taught me not to take any of the criticism personally. But it's hard not to be flustered when a not-so-insignificant segment of the body politic refuses to accept the incontrovertible fact that lifting the debt ceiling honors the debts we've already incurred through our prior spending, and does not require higher levels of future spending or borrowing. Or that the inevitable U.S. credit downgrade that would result from a failure to lift the ceiling would inarguably worsen our national debt problems by dramatically increasing the cost of borrowing.
While I sincerely respect the opinions of others and appreciate a healthy policy debate, facts are facts. And when some misinformed Tea Partier offers an irrelevant and illogical comparison to their personal finances, or repeats a convoluted conspiracy theory they've read online, I just want to go all Jack Nicholson on them and shout, "You can't handle the truth!"
Fortunately, my better angels intervene to remind me why so many Americans sincerely refuse to accept the widely-embraced truths that underlie critical matters of national policy. Some of it is due to the prevalent cultural disbelief of elites that always intensifies during periods of economic discontent. Much of it results from the digital age's empowerment of extreme and often disingenuous voices that pollute cable TV and the blogosphere with misleading data and narratives, often paid for by those who profit from a confused and polarized populace. (See, e.g., the oil industry and climate change.) Worst of all is the fact that Americans have been lied to, time and time again, by politicians, consultants, and media screaming heads who've cynically employed spin and deceit to win elections or earn higher ratings.
So it's not hard to understand that, when confronted by two policy choices, why the average Tea Partier -- particularly those that worship at the altar of Ayn Randian, self-interested objectivism -- will choose the easier, more selfish path (Lower taxes! Fewer environmental regulations!) and dismiss those facts that contradict them.
I'm afraid I don't have an easy prescription to persuade Tea Partiers to understand or even listen to me on critical policy matters. Civil debate is impossible when the two sides cannot agree to a mutually accepted set of facts.
But there is hope. And there are concrete steps you can take today to reduce the influence of the misinformed on our political system:
Dilute their Voice by Raising Yours
The Tea Party has been remarkably effective over the past 18 months in influencing public policy precisely because they have been so vocal. Too many of the rest of us have sat on our hands and shaken our heads in disgust. You can make a real difference by making your own voice heard: Attend the next political town hall meeting in your community -- so that your sane voice gets more air time than destructive extremism. Communicate with your elected representatives, using all of the new technologies of our social media. Vote.
Enhance Your Power by Joining with Others
A broad majority of Americans really do support rational compromise and bipartisan action. Unfortunately, there have been few successful organizations able to capture the passion of those of us who are frustrated by the hyper-partisan, polarized status quo. Several promising new movements are emerging in this season of discontent, however, including one I helped to found: No Labels, which unites Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who understand that we need to put aside our labels at times to do what is right for our country. Find an organization that reflects your perspective, and then encourage your friends and neighbors to join you.
Teach Your Children Well
We may never develop a satisfactory political system as long as the current generation remains in power. Good news, however, lies on the immediate horizon: American's youngest generation, the Millennials, are coming of age and stand poised to lead the country toward a promising, post-partisan future. Schooled in the compassionate, communitarian lessons drawn from the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, our young people get it: They understand instinctively the trans-religious moral notion to love your neighbor as yourself. It is critical for us, their parents and grandparents, to empower them with the tools they need to transform the political system when they assume leadership: Promote civic education in your kids' schools. Encourage political discussions around the dinner table. Take a beloved young person with you when you vote, attend town hall meetings, and participate in a campaign rallies.
It is a natural human instinct to withdraw from a debate -- or even from politics in general -- when you become too frustrated with the obstinance and intransigence of a small but vocal minority. The problem is that, when you do, they win. That's why it's critical for you to engage, and bring along your friends, neighbors, and especially, your children. Together, we can overwhelm the forces that almost brought our economy to its knees over the past few weeks.