UNTIL this month, the greatest number of angry readers I had ever heard from at one time called when I worked at a paper in Massachusetts. Eighty-five irate people called the morning after I published a cartoon poking fun at the archbishop. They didn't think it was funny, and they weren't in the mood for a discussion. They just wanted to yell their heads off.
Recent referendums to cut spending in the Connecticut towns of Montville and New London inspired similar reader rage. Many readers called the editorial page to complain about letters published in the paper, ask what side we would take on the referendums, and scream about high taxes. No one was in favor of leaving the budgets alone, even though slashing New London's budget would save the average homeowner only $36. Everybody insisted that politicians were spending money like fools and that the budgets had
more fat than a side of smokehouse bacon.
What bothered me the most was how callers characterized local officials as if they were corrupt plutocrats from some banana republic. This didn't really surprise me. People criticize Capitol Hill in the same manner; I've been guilty of Congress-bashing myself. It's similar to people who lambast the media as a faceless institution and not a collection of individuals.
But this was different. The elected officials that callers accused of incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption are more familiar than either editors or congressmen. They are neighbors. Most of them grew up in the same town and were taught by the same teachers. It bothered me that they were being dehumanized.
When people talk about others as if they have the substance of paper dolls, I know they haven't talked face-to-face. The feeling I got was that voters had a focus for their anger but not much more.
They said they wanted taxes cut, but it sounded more like they wanted someone to pay for the hard economic times that have beset the region for the past three years. They sounded bitter and frustrated. They didn't believe that anyone was listening.
THE same day, I spoke with several of the politicians that voters wanted to pillory. They sounded frustrated, too. Montville Mayor Wayne Scott said if people had asked him in the last six months whether he would recommend entering public service, he would have told them not to do it.
Across the country, a record number of state legislators and congressmen are not running for reelection. For the most part, I have regarded that as a good thing. Every system needs to be rejuvenated now and then, even if that process occurs involuntarily. But the bitter voices on the telephone made me wonder about the nature of the change occurring in the country.
I spoke with state Rep. Janet Polinsky, a Democrat from Waterford, Conn., on the issue. After 16 years in state government, she isn't running for reelection even though she would have been a shoo-in to be elected speaker of the state's House of Representatives next year. The job as state representative is becoming full-time, she said, and it isn't any fun anymore. The mood in the electorate had a hand in her decision, too.
"Self-worth is a funny thing," she said. "Because people are looking at politicians as lower than used-car salesmen, I look in the mirror and I don't see the same person. It isn't a coincidence that one-third of the legislature in Connecticut, and all over the country, isn't running again."
Anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. The United States wouldn't exist if the Founders hadn't been furious. But those revolutionaries took their anger to a second stage. They acted constructively in order to form "a more perfect union."
"More perfect" not "perfect." Our democracy is fluid; it keeps changing, keeps growing, and is still capable of surprise. It is made for people who want to do more than fling verbal napalm. Unless people transfer their anger into getting involved throughout the process, not just criticizing after the fact; unless they are ready to reason together with the very politicians they caricature, I don't have a lot of hope that change will be positive.