At a panel discussion sponsored this spring by the Maine Festival of the Book, I found out that I am among the 40 percent of registered voters in our country not enrolled in a political party.
Why am I “unaffiliated,” even when it restricts me to only general elections? Because neither side is charting a course that makes sense to me.
A baby-boomer, I was raised by Republican parents whose world view had been tempered by by the Great Depression and World War II. Their recipe for a good life? Value hard work and take pride in a job well done, no matter how routine or menial the task. Get an education. Save for a rainy day and defer short-term pleasures in exchange for longer-term goals. And above all, don’t accept handouts and don’t let yourself get dependent on anyone else.
It’s important to note that I grew up in an era when housing was affordable on one income and it was possible to save for a post-secondary education without taking on crippling debt. It’s equally important to recognize the hand of public policy in my success. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, opportunities were opening up educationally and professionally. Finance reform in the late 1970s made it possible for me, as a single woman, to establish my own credit, even buy my own home
No one tried to talk me out of majoring in history because it wasn’t “practical.” Believing that if I worked hard I could achieve anything I put my mind to, I managed, with luck, to successfully pursue not just one, but two careers (the second one launched at mid-life). I did this with no handouts, other than a brief stint on unemployment benefits in 1977, for which I felt guilty.
I believe that everyone should have the freedom to dream and the opportunities to achieve what is in one’s heart. I’m proudly pro-choice, pro-immigration and pro-gay marriage. Please, keep religion out of my bedroom. Government is at its best when it helps, not hobbles, economic development.
But not everyone was or is as lucky as I was, to have been brought up with these “bootstrap” values. Cycles of dependence on welfare have kept some from becoming fully productive citizens. Fifteen years in public school education leaves me dubious as to whether those values of self-reliance are still being taught at home.
Still, it’s a different era now. The economic engine of post-war America that carried me forward on the tide of middle-class expansion has slowed and, for some, stopped. I watch people in their 20s having difficulty finding jobs. Childless adults are being booted off Medicaid rolls. Proposals to cut food stamps and general assistance create even larger holes in our safety net. Spend one day volunteering at a soup kitchen and you’ll realize that many of us are just one illness or one layoff away from similar circumstances.
As a history teacher, I enjoy introducing the fundamentals of our American political creed to immigrants, payback for my own immigrant grandparents’ experience. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution states: “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, … promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… .” I interpret this to mean that we’re not individuals trying to survive in a laissez-faire oligarchy controlled by super-PACS and unethical financial institutions.
It’s those “blessings of Liberty for … our posterity” that I ponder now. What ought we to do to ensure that future generations are blessed with the same opportunities I enjoyed? Yes, we are our brother’s keeper; sink or swim, we’re in this together.
I’m troubled by the attacks to the safety net created by the New Deal and expanded by the Great Society. I don’t think Obamacare went far enough; access to health care should be a fundamental right in our wealthy nation. Efforts to strip workers of collective bargaining rights, tax “reform” that gives breaks to the wealthiest to the detriment to the least of us, refusal to acknowledge the science of climate change and the dangers of global warming – the list gets longer as I follow current political debate. There is a chorus of “I’ve got mine, screw you” selfishness that is reaching disturbing levels.
As Benjamin Franklin urged fellow rebels, “we must all hang together or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Please, find common ground.
Elizabeth Miller is a part-time teacher at Portland Adult Education. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and has been a resident of Portland since 1985, when she moved to Maine to be the executive director of the Maine Historical Society.