Katy Burns: A Christmas state of mind
The halls are decked with sprigs of holly – our halls are too small to accommodate huge boughs – as well as faux pine swags, red bows and gold ribbons. The tree is up, festooned with colorful lights and glittering ornaments. The cupboards and refrigerator are stuffed with goodies.
Across the state and country other homes are like ours – bursting with the season’s bounty and brimming over with good will. For some people it may be religious, for others cultural. But celebrating and feasting during what are literally the darkest days of the year seem to be embedded in humankind’s genes.
For some Americans this year, though, there will be unease as well, knowing that the celebratory mood isn’t universal in this enormously blessed country, probably the richest in the history of the world. Millions will go without in a season and a nation of plenty.
And some other Americans, frankly – just like Rhett Butler – don’t give a damn.
“We can’t afford it,” or “We’re broke!” they whine. Nonsense. They just don’t want to pay taxes, the price of civilization.
There is a growing sense of meanness, of miserliness afoot in the land. In a perverse retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, some of us seem to be cultivating a nation of Scrooges. And they’re settling on the 21st-century Republican Party as their natural home.
Look at the disquieting evidence of the past few years, summarized in four jarringly uncharitable actions – or non-actions – on the part of our august political representatives.
One is the failure of our national Congress to increase the minimum wage. Since July 2009, it has been set at $7.25 per hour, not even close to a living wage in most parts of the country, including New Hampshire. Add to that our own state shame when the last state legislature completely killed our state minimum wage, first established under Gov. John Winant in the early 1930s. Winant was a proud Republican. Yet today, while most Democratic officeholders want to raise the minimum, most Republicans don’t.
Another is the refusal of mostly heavily Republican states to accept the expansion of Medicaid – extending medical coverage to millions of Americans who cannot otherwise afford it – despite the fact the federal government is footing the entire bill. Shamefully, one of the states is New Hampshire, thanks to a skimpy two-vote Republican majority in the Senate.
Then we have the matter of food stamps, now known as the SNAP program, which the Republican-dominated House of Representatives has repeatedly tried to slash, conjuring up absurd images of well-clad and -coiffed moochers breezing through supermarket lines using their SNAP cards to stock up on crab legs and porterhouse steaks.
Finally, there’s the complete refusal of the same House Republicans to extend long-term unemployment benefits. Or even to consider extending them. This, despite the fact that unemployment continues to be unusually high, 7.3 percent nationally and in some states over 9 percent. So as the well-paid House members tuck into their holiday roasts, many will do so knowing – and not much caring – that on Dec. 28 more than a million Americans will be losing the aid that has helped them to keep roofs over their heads and food on the table. That includes about 1,100 households in the Granite State.
There no longer are, sadly, liberal or even moderate Republican politicians, who once thrived in the party – and won elections. Today there are conservative and ultra-conservatives, period, and most of them make it plain that they really don’t care a whit about America’s have-nots or have-littles.
The GOP talking points are repeated by rote. It is not a matter of circumstances that brings about poverty or near poverty, they say. It is a matter of character. People should have the foresight and the wherewithal to provide for their needs, period. No matter what those needs might turn out to be. And if they don’t? Their fault. God forbid that decent, honest thrifty – or, I will add, maybe just plain lucky – Americans bail them out!
There isn’t much deeper reflection going on. In an insightful Monitor column, Concord writer Glenn Currie deplored the outlandishly out-of-whack difference between those at the top of corporate pay and those at the bottom, but few of his conservative confreres seem to share that concern.
Nor do they seem much concerned about the yawning income gap and wealth gap between most Americans and those at the very top tier of our society – fewer than 10 percent of all Americans earned nearly half of all income in America last year, and the very richest – a mere 1 percent – earned one-fifth of all income.
If anything, this disparity – equaled only by that of the Gilded Age, when robber barons ruled much of the nation’s economy – is almost celebrated.
I suspect that, should today’s peasants ever take up their pitchforks and storm the nobleman’s castle, a lot of today’s Republican pols would be up there with their own pitchforks beating back the downtrodden.
The almost reflexive tendency of today’s GOP to defend and even celebrate those at the top of the wealth pyramid stands in sharp contrast to the Republican Party of yesteryear. The four programs now under attack – Medicaid, food stamps, minimum wage and unemployment insurance – have a long history of bipartisan support, both nationally and locally.
Consider again Gov. Winant. As Annmarie Timmins wrote in The New Hampshire Century, a Monitor book, Winant “looked on despair and economic decline and saw a responsibility and role for government.” In the depths of the Great Depression, he was able to push through the legislature not only a minimum wage but also emergency relief, old-age assistance and measures to prevent foreclosure on farms and factory workers’ homes.
In Winant’s day, members of both parties – faced with economic disaster and then war – may have had differences, but they were able to bridge those differences to work to improve the lives of their constituents.
Today? Well, not so much. Particularly among Republican officeholders, “compromise” – once an honored art at the heart of successful governance – is a dirty word.
(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)