In the Arena

The End of the Road

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I’ve written the cover story for this week’s magazine, which is now available online to subscribers. The piece summarizes some of the things I saw and learned on my recent road trip from Laredo, Texas, to Iowa.

The most important conclusion seems obvious, but it isn’t much appreciated by our political class or by those of us in the media: Most Americans are sane moderates, even in the most conservative areas through which I wandered. They are fascinated by the Tea Party’s success in grabbing the national megaphone, but also very much opposed to Tea Policy–and they are extremely frustrated that their views are not acknowledged by either the politicians or the media.

Lest you think these views were merely pruned and harvested me, there is a new TIME Magazine poll that vehemently reinforces the opinions of the Normal Majority: 89% of Americans want politicians to compromise on the major issues like the federal deficit; more than 70% believe the rich should pay higher taxes; 60% believe the media and politicians aren’t discussing the most important issues. There are mixed feelings about the effect of the Tea Party on American politics, but only 11% describe themselves as Tea Party supporters. The feelings about the Occupy Wall Street protesters are far more positive; a solid majority agree with the goals of the movement. (Most of my travels took place before OWS went viral; none of the people I interviewed mentioned it.)

Also, as expected, the poll reinforced the sense I got that most Americans think the country is on the wrong track (81%) or in decline (71%).

In general, I found people to be less anguished, and more contemplative, than last year’s trip. Some blamed most of our problems on the federal government, but most didn’t. Most were beginning to wonder if we had grown lazy or too materialistic. A Little Rock orthodontist said, “I can be a happy camper in a house about half the size of the one I live in. I didn’t have to drive here in a BMW. Maybe we’ve been concentrating too much on material goods.”

The most important days of the trip were spent in Joplin, Missouri, where material goods had been swept away in a killer tornado, and a new spirit of community, spirituality, cooperation and awe had begun to fill the vacuum left by the loss of 162 lives and the total destruction of more than 4000 homes. It was interesting, too: there were few complaints to be heard about the estimated $450 million in federal disaster relief funds that are beginning to flow into the community.

And this, I think, was quiet message of the trip, delivered by dozens and dozens of people whom the media usually ignore: a belief that democracy requires compromise, that it works better without screaming, and that the federal government does have an important role to play. But, ultimately, the choices that each of us makes–to work hard, or not; to become active citizens again, or not; to see past the momentary pleasures of material goods, or not–will determine the future of the country.