There’s a great scene in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” where, after having insulted his daughter Zuzu’s schoolteacher for sending her home in winter in an unbuttoned coat, Jimmy Stewart gets on the phone with the teacher’s irate husband. The man promptly gives him an earful. “Oh yeah …,” Stewart replies, moving the phone a few inches from his face in preparation to blow, “ … well let me tell you what I really think of your wife.”
That’s pretty much how I feel after a dustup last week with some former colleagues in the State Senate, whom I took to task for what I believe is their lack of vision and backbone. But I suppose that instinct has to be suppressed for now, because in my day job I speak for other people. Besides, Stewart ended up on his back at a local watering hole later in the film after running across that very same husband’s right hand.
But words like “catharsis” wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a very real human need every now and then to put it all out there, to stop being polite and to say what you really think about things. It’s rarely pretty.
I get the sense that just under the surface of the American body politic an extraordinary catharsis is building. I can hear it brewing every day. Whenever the subjects of Washington or Albany come up — for political consultants they come up a lot — people’s faces change. What used to be an eye-roll has turned into real anger, bordering on rage. I genuinely worry about it.
Two politically cathartic movements already have emerged in America, the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street. The tea party is still growing, as far as I can tell. Occupy Wall Street burned itself out. But it left behind a new and powerful movement of committed leftists.
Both reflect the powerlessness ordinary people feel over their ability to improve their lot in life or to halt the downward spiral of their nation. Both express anger and frustration with political and business elites who appear oblivious to what’s going on in mainstreet America. As long as campaign contributions keep coming in and the stock market keeps going up, those people seem happy.
But despite their successes, neither the tea party nor Occupy Wall Street have moved the dial in any measurable way in this country, and so the cauldron boils a little hotter each day. The credit card bills still come in with 29 percent interest rates; college costs continue to outpace inflation; property taxes keep rising, as do gas and food prices; and politicians continue arguing over nonsense like, in New York, whether to ban e-cigarettes indoors or exterminate mute swans. In Washington, it’s the 24/7 blame game.
What people don’t see within legislatures or corporate board rooms are the Jerry Maguire’s — the insiders speaking the truth, bucking the system and challenging the powers that be. It’s no wonder people feel abandoned.
My favorite line from Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign was his promise to be “that grain of sand to the oyster.” It captures exactly what is needed in American legislatures today. There is a time for cooperation and a time for agitation. To get to the former, we need much more of the latter.