Airports and American Politics

I love airports. In the age of terrorism, body scanners, and unassigned seating, it’s not a popular sentiment, but I still love airports. To me, they’ve always seemed like a microcosm of American society; artifacts of where we are as a country and who we are as a people. This is especially true around the holidays. If I were an alien, I could imagine no more an insightful place to gain understanding about humans than an airport on December 22nd. Even as a resident of this planet though, traveling through airports this time of year is still insightful. Finishing my first semester in college, I was excited about flying home to Maine. Arriving from Harrisburg into Philadelphia, I had a two hour layover before continuing on to Portland. For two hours, I sat at my departure gate, and watched the world go by.

John F. Kennedy International Airport, June 1955.

I saw the men and women of our armed forces, on their way home to see family; I saw whole families, for that matter, traveling to see cousins or grandparents; I saw businessmen and women, weary from long plane rides, finally on their way home. Then, I saw MSNBC, on three large plasma screens all within twenty feet of me. No one seemed to be paying a great deal of attention to it. The soldiers did not seem to care a great deal about which soup the White House Mess had that day, nor did the businesspeople seem particularly interested in the fact that Senator Olympia Snowe’s scheduler had a birthday coming up. Another moment when airports seem to mirror our society as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong, I like MSNBC, and though trivial, I don’t think covering the White House’s soup of the day actually offends anyone. The real metaphor of my journey through Philadelphia Airport was larger: people just don’t care. Confidence in leadership in Washington is low, while our capacity to be hopeful is even lower. While our country faces a significant economic crisis, underlying it is a crisis even more profound: a crisis of inspiration.

This isn’t a new problem. In fact, it has fermented slowly over 30 years of increasing income inequality, expanding federal debt, and decreasing educational achievement. Every once in a while though, a new group comes along, claiming a new vision for re-enfranchising people in our political system. This year, it seems like “No Labels” is that group.

I think they’ll likely be ineffective though, for two reasons. First of all, the solution to our situation – the path towards bold ideas and big solutions – is not filling a room in New York City with the most boring names in news. Joe Manchin? Evan Bayh? Give me a break. With friends like these, “No Labels” is more likely “No Ideas.”

That said, Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Cory Booker have also signed on to “No Labels,” and one would be hard pressed to argue that either lacks innovative thinking. It isn’t purely an issue of who is involved and who isn’t though. The bigger issue is the message, and this group’s misses the point entirely.

Look at their website. I was excited to read about their opinions on the issues, only to find stale political copy: “the federal government has a hard time living within its means, and its addiction to accumulating an ever more staggering amount of debt jeopardizes the nation’s future well-being.” Thanks, I must have missed that point over the past two decades.

I don’t mean to be snarky, but I don’t see why we need another flashy third party group governed by political fundraisers to tell us what we already know: our elected officials are failing our people. The crisis we face won’t be solved, though, by rejecting “labels” or furthering moderates like Evan Bayh or Kirsten Gillibrand – neither of whom have had a bright idea since they were elected – in the hopes of pushing government to the middle of the road.

The problem underlying this crisis isn’t political; it’s personal. The folks that get things done on both sides of the aisle, people like the late Ted Kennedy or current Senator Orrin Hatch, are a minority in American politics: people that are both fierce ideologues and fierce bipartisans, unwilling to compromise on their ideals, but always willing to negotiate and discuss. Replacing them is a new wave of politicians on both sides of the aisle, seeking to further the party rather than the policy, always looking for the next political point. Can you imagine if Everett Dirksen met Jon Kyl? If Paul Wellstone met Ben Nelson?

The labels don’t matter, and eliminating or ignoring them won’t either. Nor will it pass START or finally guarantee 9/11 first responders the care they have most certainly earned. Its the caliber of people that wear those labels today that calls for change. The challenges we face demand a return to the politics that Dirksen, Wellstone, Hatch, and Kennedy all practiced. Their archetype is missing in our political culture, and it is sorely needed; however, I don’t think Charlie Crist, Joe Scarborough, or Mark McKinnon are going to be the people to bring it back.

Until the day we do gather together with the people that can usher in a renewal of our politics, I’m afraid I’ll keep watching the soldiers and students pass by in the airport, disenfranchised from our system.

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