A Few Lingering Thoughts from the Meeting
Driving home from the RISC meeting on Saturday, my MP3 player happened upon Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” propaganda song, which is essentially an audio collage of famous and semi-famous people singing and reciting along with a Barack Obama speech.
It occurred to me that the content is sufficiently vague that, if one strips away external knowledge about the policies being implied, it can actually be a universally inspiring tune. (Therein the secret to Obama’s success, I’d say.) Yes we can heal this nation! Amen; we can cut government, lower taxes, make our country, once again, a beacon of hope in a world drifting off, this time, into a post-modernist malaise. Yes we can defend the free world from dictators and theocrats who want only to expand the reach of their oppressive claws. Yes we can!
Yes we can bring balance back to the tiers of government in Rhode Island. Yes we can overcome the ruts and obstacles that unions have laid across our path to prosperity. Yes we can!
As this frame of mind might suggest, I crossed Aquidneck Island, on Saturday, feeling like an outsider among political subversives. In retrospect, there are three core reasons.
We need fresh faces.
I wonder if it would be contrary to etiquette (or political wisdom) for reform groups to begin declining to allow the governor to speak when he shows up at their events. Don’t get me wrong; I like Don Carcieri, and at the RISC meeting, he was by far the most rousing speaker. And I understand that not everybody has heard the points that he’s been making over and over again, in the past few months. But he’s a politician, and he’s where we’ve been. We need folks telling us where we need to go.
We need speakers whom we perhaps don’t recognize but within a twenty-minute talk give us a sense that they’ll be remedying their obscurity in the weeks to come, raising us all up with them. We need fresh faces to emerge from the periphery and instill confidence that they can move to the front.
Regionalization is the wrong way to go.
We will succeed at neither finding those fresh faces nor ushering them through the gauntlet of Rhode Island politics if we stumble into the comfortable functionality of regionalization. In the first place, it’s a method for increasing efficiency at the margins; being a dispersed polity is not the origin of our problems, and making it the issue will only give the corruptocrats, unionists, and money grabbers a bandwagon to join.
Join it, they will, because in the second place, consolidation benefits entrenched interests. We need to build a statewide movement that ties together local activists. Folks who aren’t interested in the mud and difficulties of state-level activism or political campaigns will be more easily persuaded to step forward for town-level offices and activities. Some might see our problem as being the diffuse base of support for the reform movement, but that can easily be made a strength. Fewer resources are needed to challenge the tendrils of the establishment that are rooted in town councils and school committees; encouraging people to become involved will both acclimate them to civic participation and educate them about the sources of our difficulties at the local and state tiers.
In the third place, call them fiefdoms, call them hamlets, villages, whatever, the local variations of Rhode Island are a charming part of its character, blending in with the geography as if the civic structure is a natural phenomenon. Rhode Islanders sense and like this quality of the state, and any reform movement that ties its promises to challenging the innate parochialism is doomed. The key is not to erase the unique qualities of cities and towns — and at some point, regionalization will accomplish just that — but to infiltrate the governments of those cities and towns with people who appreciate them while still understanding the need to change the way they’re run.
We’re not pushing a boulder up a hill; we’re crossing a collapsing bridge.
On Saturday, I objected to Governor Carcieri’s metaphor of Rhode Island pushing a boulder up a hill. He exhorted us to keep pushing, because it’s moving; I suggested that, at best, we’re slowing its downward roll. Rumbling over the Sakonnet Bridge, a better metaphor occurred to me.
Rhode Islanders are repeatedly crossing a crumbling bridge with a fabulous view. We look out at the water and the islands, and then we go about our lives content with the glimpse of the natural advantages of our local environment. We don’t really want to know about the nuts and bolts of the bridge’s structure, because every time we begin to explore them, bitter-faced trolls spit profanities at us. What we need to learn, though, is that the status quo cannot continue, and the view isn’t quite so spectacular from under water.