“From Politics to Policy” … January 14, 2011

Click here for the WAMC Audio for  “From Politics to Policy”

“From Politics to Policy”

For someone who came of age in the year that saw both Martin Luther King and Bobbie Kennedy taken from us by gunmen, this week’s bloody massacre in Arizona brought back painful memories. Sure, it has become obvious that Arizona’s gun slinger was more mentally ill than politically motivated, an emerging reality that has left some of those instant pundit assumptions that drew direct lines between Sara Palin’s enthusiasm for politicized weapons imagery and the violence in Arizona quickly back tracking.

But regardless of what really happened Arizona. It remains true that turning political debates into theatres of combat rhetoric always has the potential to enflame passions to the firing point.  But if Arizona ’s murder was not directly linked to Palin’s Tea Party style gun rhetoric  we can’t delude ourselves into thinking it was completely divorced either because heated politics often does become implemented policy. In Arizona’s case  a set of state policies that made it easer to get a gun into the obvious disturbed Mr. Loafer’s hands then to get him into  treatment for his mental health problems that were obvious enough to get him expelled from college. Yes an  ideology become policy that has emerged from a political mindset Americans deeply need to reevaluate.

All of which brings us to the core issue of just how do we move into this new decade more securely. And one of the more intriguing hints of all this came with word that that President Obama had started his year reading a biography of former president  Reagan Well, let me just say that as a native Californian who grew up during Reagan’s governorship. I hope that President Obama draws the right conclusion about Mr. Reagan’s legacy.

Sure as an American in the 1980s, I listened to Reagan’s rhetoric about how Government  was not the solution but the problem. And his nurturing of the idea that paying our supposedly evil government taxes for anything other than bazookas to hold off the commies was somehow “theft.”  Useful political rhetoric perhaps for someone focused on the struggle with the totalitarian communism.

But earlier still as a college student in late 1960s in California I saw what that really meant as then governor Reagan closed down many of the state mental hospitals putting clearly unstable patients into the streets of California inner cities; warehousing them in derelict hotels. Even a former murderer I knew personally though my mom’s work at the local psychiatric hospital in San Jose. No, clearly sure there may not be a direct link between Mr. Loughner and all this gun image political rhetoric. But  the crisis just as clearly emerged out of America’s inability to get past this deadly battle over the role of government in a free society.

And the inability of those of us who can’t recognize the importance of governments taking on services the private sector can’t make a profit on. An understanding that it is often only the governments can put into place the support systems necessary to ensure that People with physical and yes, mental health problems can get the help they need whether it makes financial sense for a profit based health insurance company or not.

Services we need to pay for with taxes. Something we long ago recognized with the creation of Medicare despite Governor Reagan’s early opposition to President Johnson’s great accomplishment An opposition that emerged perhaps because programs like social security and Medicare messed up Reagan’s ideology driven simplification about government being the problem.

Which calls, as the Arizona shootings do for a broader rethinking of just how Americans reflect on the relationship between the America people and their government,  on the question of whether we as a people want it easier for the Loughners of America to get guns then treatment.

Something perhaps President Obama is currently reflecting on as he takes on the supposed great communicator, Ronald Reagan’s often debilitating legacy.

Steven A. Leibo

About Steven Leibo

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