The “Grand Unifying Theory” and the case for societal action

Before dawn on a wickedly cold and rainy Thursday morning, fast food workers in black hoodies and t-shirts gathered on a parking lot on Lindell Blvd in St. Louis. They planned to have a peaceful pubic protest to call for a living wage for their labor. Also there: a crowd of people, including me, oft denigrated as “activists.” We marched to – and through – a McDonalds, heard prayers and short speeches in front of Dominos, Rally’s and Arby’s, then visited a Jack In The Box where the agitated manager locked the doors rather than have the crowd walk through.

Among the activists were several of us who in previous days had been to a “table talk” conducted by Senator Claire McCaskill’s office, visited Senator Roy Blunt’s Clayton office to talk hunger and food stamps, and attended a program on immigration reform.

Astrophysicists are working towards a Grand Unifying Theory, the next step past the Standard Model, to explain how interactions among electromagnetism and the weak and strong forces can be reliably described in terms of coupling constants. After that work is done, add-in gravity’s role and the elusive Theory Of Everything should come into focus.  In other words, the GUT leads to the TOE.

Fortunately, a small portion of this community keeps pushing for a Grand Unifying Theory of societal action. We firmly believe that everyone is better off if all are treated fairly.  All spheres – government, education, religion, employers and employees included – need to conduct themselves for the good of all. We’re well aware that Missouri’s motto “The welfare of the people shall be the supreme law” is more than gold lettering in the walls of the Capitol.  It is a statement of principle codified many generations ago by people (well, middle aged and old white men) determined to structure a state where every person was treated fairly, giving them an opportunity to earn success.

Supporting pantries which feed the hungry is a vital activity, and working for better pay and more job opportunities so most don’t need free food is the critical next step.

Despite noise and misgivings from Republicans, the New Deal and the War on Poverty made life better for Americans. Wires to provide electric and phone service reached remote farm families.  Factory owners had to follow rules on hours and wages. The old and disabled received a bit of help. Struggling families got food, access to medical care and other basic help. For an entire political generation, from the 1930’s through the 1960’s, the United States government and state governments (mostly using federal funds) made determined efforts to make life better for everyone. They carried out that quest despite economic hardship, the greatest war in human history, two other major military conflicts and a costly Cold War against the Soviet Union. Yes, government got bigger but life got better.  Poverty retreated from the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

Not everyone liked that success, however.

While today’s Republicans revere Ronald Reagan as their risen savior, the man who started putting government back in its small place, I think credit or, more correctly, blame ought to go to Richard M. Nixon.

Nixon came of age during that great era of government working to help Americans. He had seen at point blank range the positive impact of Interstate Highways, Social Security and other ‘big government’ activities. Yet, he knew that a portion of the population – a shadowy sliver – hated the good that government did and the people helped. Nixon courted the Tea Party’s grandfathers, especially in the South. Note that despite the presence of George Wallace on the ballot, Nixon carried both Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee, Oklahoma and Missouri in 1968.

Rather than promote consensus, Nixon’s administration encouraged division. From Vice President Spiro Agnew:

There are some people in our society who should be separated and discarded…and we’re always going to have a certain number of people

in our community who have no desire to achieve or even to even fit in in an amicable way with the rest of society.  And these people should

be separated from the community, not in a callous way but they should be separated as far as any idea that their opinions shall have any

effect on the course we follow.  [Washington Post 7-2-70 & other sources]


In other words, if you’re not like “us,” we won’t listen to you.

Country club Republicans, cordial GOP leaders like Ike, were moving off the stage. Despite the service of people with honor and principles (such as Missouri’s John Danforth,) the party moved to placate John Wayne and other members of the John Birch Society.

Ronald Reagan put a friendly face on the new philosophy but he did his best to widen the crack. He had learned (as have other Republicans) that the trick was to appeal to that radical right, then soften the message just enough so that minivan drivers didn’t feel guilty voting Republican.

Many of us active in the non-profit world remember the early 1980’s. Not fondly. During Reagan’s first term we had to form the food pantry association to assist those creating hundreds of new pantries about the region. No one wanted to open a food pantry but they realized their neighborhood suddenly needed one. Community action agencies found their money coming from state-administered block grants. The first thing Missouri did, as did most states, was carve a big chunk off the top for administration. To save oversight costs, Metroplex (where I worked for six years) got paid by the state for “registering” poor people – getting their basic information on a signed form – rather than for actually delivering needed services.

During Reagan’s second term, funding for HUD was chopped by 40%. As a result of that cut and subsequent neglect, each year fewer Americans live in affordable housing.

Both of the tag team Bush followed Dutch Reagan’s lead. The one time George H.W. Bush dared to compromise, with a very mild tax increase,  he soon had plenty of time to skydive and do other things in his retirement.

Newt Gingrich, Denny Hastert and now John Boehner work hard to exploit the divide Nixon opened up. The irony, of course, is that once you cater to the radical fringe you’re stuck with them as they keep moving the agenda further and further right.

Note that Grover Norquist and his “never never” tax hike pledge once represented the ideological edge of the right. Today he’s mainstream.

It’s become hard to find the place on the map where political ideas become even too far out for the modern Republican.  Here in Missouri our legislature actually passed a law making it a crime for federal law enforcement personnel to do their job. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louis Gohmert, both from Texas, routinely say things to reporters (for example, Gohmert implied that Senator John McCain had terrorist links) that even make many in the Tea Party cringe. Yet, Speaker Boehner gave Gohmert a half hour of precious House floor time to say Americans would be better off without health insurance. Then, when we went into the hospital through the emergency room, before treatment we could negotiate an inclusive price for our care and sign a promissory note: if we couldn’t agree on a price, we could go to the next hospital and strike a deal with them.  [CSpan1, 3:30 p.m. 12/11/14] Meanwhile, Cruz was on Fox News.

I don’t believe even as calculating an SOB as Nixon could have seen how his plan is destroying America’s middle class.

A member of the Missouri Secretary of State’s office recently told me that up to 40 initiative petitions may wind up getting approved for circulation this year. {Disclosure: I am a board member of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare which has filed suit over the condensed wording of one petition, to add a 1¢ per dollar sales tax for transportation. We’re not pro-pot hole, we are against regressive sales taxes.}  Besides calling for a sales tax for roads, there are already proposals to slash taxes on businesses and upper-income people, repeal limits on concealed guns, turn Missouri into a “right to work” state and other controversial topics working their way through the Secretary’s office. Without a Democratic governor, all those ideas would be one afternoon’s work for the current membership of the Missouri Legislature.

So, it’s time for a gut check.

You can join those of us working hard on many topics towards restoring the state motto and fighting Washington efforts to hurt our neighbors.  You can join those who want to create a state and a nation where the lucky and the rich thrive by kicking everyone else out of their privileged way. Or, like most people, you can sit back and complain but do nothing.

Choose wisely.