Angry Citizens Just Want Some R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Posted: Sep 21, 2009 12:00 AM

Comic Rodney Dangerfield made a career out of enumerating the manifold ways in which – as he put it ungrammatically but colorfully – he didn’t “get no respect.” Today, America has a problem: An increasing number of its citizens feel the same way when it comes to their government. Unlike Dangerfield, they’re not joking.

This isn’t just about the partisan activists on the left or right. It’s about an ever-growing sense on the part of regular Americans that their government isn’t just clueless about their priorities and the realities of their lives; worse, they’re beginning to believe that elected officials hold them and their views in outright contempt.

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Normal Americans have been cutting back, as they struggle through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. How did Washington respond? By going on an unprecedented spending spree, assembling a behemoth $787 billion dollar package that rewarded a host of (Democratic) special interests. Despite some initial misgivings most Americans went along with the plan, after the new President insisted that the deficit-busting package had to be passed quickly to ensure that the economy wouldn’t worsen. Then employment surged up anyway, well past the 8% peak the President had projected. Those who had been willing to believe that government spending might help the economy if funds were rapidly and widely disseminated found, to their disgust, that only $150 billion of the total has been disbursed.

Worse, the public has learned of outrageous abuses of taxpayer-supplied money. US Senator Tom Coburn has identified $55 billion in wasteful projects. The Boston Herald has reported that stimulus money was sent to 4000 convicts in prisons nationwide. The AP uncovered $15 million being spent on a Montana immigration checkpoint that sees about three travelers daily, even as the needs of the busiest Texas checkpoints remain unaddressed. And there’s much, much more. Who wouldn’t be angry at such shameless displays of government waste and politically-motivated misallocation of taxpayer money? It’s insulting for citizens to be treated as nothing more than piggy banks for fat, happy politicians running an inefficient, greedy government.

Or take “health care reform.” Although most Americans believe that the economy is the greatest challenge currently confronting the country (and 85% are satisfied with their own health care), the President continues to insist, contrary to most voters’ judgment and personal experience, that a health care “crisis” requiring immediate attention exists. That’s not all: The President also wants voters to believe – again, contrary to their own experience and judgment – that expanding government control over medical care through sweeping and untried reforms is the best way both to address the health care crisis and heal the economy. What’s more, he tells us, it’s possible simultaneously to increase coverage and lower costs, all without diminishing the quality of American health care. But guess what? It’s insulting to Americans to be treated as though we are stupid.

Certainly, the initial protests against ObamaCare were initiated by small-government conservatives – and, as with any protest movement, their ranks included some on the fringe of American political discourse. As less partisan Americans learned more of the details, however, their concerns about ObamaCare grew, as well. But rather than listening respectfully and addressing voters’ substantive concerns, political leaders characterized them as “un-American” instead – and, in many cases, actually refused to conduct town halls with their own constituents. Thereafter, despite the unpopularity of current “health care reform” plans and the expressed reservations of numerous Americans (including some Democrats), the administration has simply pressed ahead. In a republic like ours, where political leaders win office and remain there only at the pleasure of the people, all this conduct defines disrespect.

Finally, those who oppose President Obama’s policies were accused last week by a former President and numerous media pundits of the most disgusting kind of bigotry. Sadly, there are no doubt some racists among the President’s adversaries, but the charge, as applied to the overwhelming majority of Obama critics, was as wrongheaded as it was offensive. What’s more, it effectively dismissed – even disdained – the very real concerns of many average Americans, concerns that have nothing to do with the President’s skin color.

It may have been funny when Rodney Dangerfield decried the disrespect he constantly encountered. But when the opinions of a significant proportion of the American electorate are routinely discounted, derided or ignored both by top officials and large swathes of the media, it’s no joke. Citizens come to believe that they must shout ever more loudly just to be heard (or understood), and the quality of American civic life and discourse suffers as a result.

One of the reasons voters trusted a young and untried senator with the highest office in the land was because of his self-proclaimed interest in lowering the volume of our often-overheated political discourse. That’s the kind of change that many Americans are ready to embrace. But it isn’t likely to happen until the nation's most powerful politicians start giving voters – yes, even those with whom they disagree – what another showbiz icon, Aretha Franklin, demanded more than four decades ago: A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.