A New Tragedy of the Commons — Tea Party Attack on America’s Civic Dignity


There was a story earlier this year about 18 high school cheerleaders who, one by one, developed mysterious tics, spasms and vocalizations which were eventually diagnosed as conversion disorder, a condition causing Tourette-like symptoms, but with no underlying neurologic cause.   The more it was publicized (and it was), the worse the outbreak became. It was not until the media started reporting it as mass psychogenic illness (mass hysteria) that the girls started to magically get well. Oddly, their families were still desperately seeking a more sinister cause, and seemed genuinely disappointed that it was in fact a self-induced condition.

A similar, but much larger outbreak of hysteria is taking place across the nation, infecting millions of Americans. They have developed an irrational phobia about the commons — that which is the public realm — publicly held tangible assets, resources, services, and shared culture in general — all have become the source of utter terror to many susceptible minds. It’s much more than just old-timey rugged American individualism run-amok here, this is true clinical hysteria on the grandest and most awful scale. It is a mass delusion — a mental wasting disease spreading its necrotic stench from shore to shore.

Many are familiar with the 1969 seminal work The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin — a breakthrough insight that laid the groundwork of the accepted premise behind the modern environmental movement. Hardin eloquently defined the nature of the problem as the over use and abuse of limited common resources. — land, water, air…

Now we see the new tragedy of the commons moving beyond the lakes, forests and skies — invading all of the shared human experience. It is an attack on the very notion of community — an all-out assault on the great American tradition of civic life.

“Civic life” is comprised of all those things we hold for the common good: civic spaces and places, such as parks and libraries, services like public transportation, police and fire protection, democratic home rule, and the formerly proudest of American civic institutions, public education. We cannot discuss these broad categories without acknowledging their vast infrastructures — from bridges to street lights, they are the underpinning of our public realm, they are what make us a great nation, all paid for and maintained at the will of the people through tax revenues well-spent.

It is tempting to assert that this divorce from the realities of fundamental democratic and economic principles has been going on for quite some time, but truly much of the previous degradation of common property was borne out of benign neglect.  It’s as old as the hills.  Aristotle is quoted as saying “What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.”

This is different.

We now face something quite worse — a nationwide epidemic of stupidity warping our priorities and leaving once great insitutions unable to function beyond minimal levels, if at all.  What is occurring now is unprecedented in its scope and velocity — and it is being perpetrated with malicious intent through epidemic levels of political fear.

The Tea Party is the primary host of this viral pathogen, and given their parasitic relationship with the Republican Party, our civic life is in true peril. (There is an interesting connection between an extreme conservative mind-set and the above mentioned conversion disorder sufferers — they both possess enlarged amygdalae, the part of the brain that deals with primitive fear responses. A larger than normal amygdala correlates to irrational fear-based behavior.)

Just this past week, the City of Pontiac, Michigan (or, we should say the former city), was effectively disbanded, its departments closed and its services outsourced. Lou Schimmel, the city’s third “Emergency Manager” acting in the spirit of the first Emergency Manager who sold the 55.7 million dollar Silverdome for $583,000, has systematically sold the remainder of the city out of existence. Cannibal King Schimmel, positively ebullient with his accomplishment like a two-year old with his excrement, said he wanted this to be the “example” for all of Michigan, citing his (faulty) belief that consolidation, mergers, privatization and cut-back management are fiscally sound concepts. The evidence just isn’t there for the efficacy of pawn shop fiscal policy, but the rising animus trampled the common good and the city is no more.

Another recent symptom of this disease are the paranoid delusions rippling through the conservative community about the fairly innocuous Agenda 21, a non-binding United Nations resolution promoting the concepts of sustainable development and poverty reduction. Under Tea Party pressure, municipalities across the country are passing resolutions making adopting these goals illegal in their communities. State legislatures, including Michigan’s, are similarly afflicted with this disordered thinking.

There are no sacred cows — the malevolence extends to public education and the arts.

Governor Snyder, and the Michigan legislature, have made no secret of their desire to open-up the state’s public school system to full-bore privatization through a voucher system. They are encouraging substandard charter and cyber schools to feed on the already impoverished system as a means of “solving” the fiscal problems that in large part are a result of Snyder’s corporate friendly policies and tax code.

In a recent school millage vote in Northern Michigan’s Traverse City Area Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, open hostility towards the arts was what tanked the proposal. A Tea Party County Commissioner made it his project to rally opposition to the bond proposal because it contained, among multiple important projects and long overdue upgrades, a much-needed performing arts center. The commissioner was quoted in the paper referring to the arts as “fluff” and asserting schools should eliminate them altogether and focus on math, science, engineering and athletics. (Incidentally, this same commissioner, in the same paper, previously said he does not believe global warming is real — looks like he could use a little science lesson on the art of not being an idiot.) The local paper even got in on the Tea Party fun and editorialized against the millage based on the cost of the arts center. (It’s not going to get any cheaper by waiting.) Had the proposal passed, the district would still enjoy a millage rate 23% less than the statewide average.

This Tea Party obsession with eliminating public programs has very real consequences that will negatively impact our nation for decades. Congress continues to defund and underfund public research and experimental science, leaving it to twist in the wind, while big Pharma churns-out lorry-loads of boner pills. The bank bailout itself cost more than the entire 50 year history of the space program. At 4/10ths of cent of each tax dollar, NASA is a bargain for all it’s brought to our culture and economy.

Michigan is currently undergoing a different kind of experiment — it is an incubation laboratory for the Tea Party’s policy contagion. But, they know not what harm they do.

This attack on the Michigan’s public realm is so dangerous in particular because the state has one of the most important commonly held resources in the world — the Great Lakes. Fresh water is bound to become increasingly critical as our climate warms. Public stewardship of this asset couldn’t be more important, yet Michigan lawmakers and courts see it as just one more opportunity to privatize the commons. By way of example when asked, state Representative Wayne Schmidt (R-104) was unable definitively state that water is not a “product” to be privately sold. He wanted to “study” that more. Michigan leaders continue to be generally friendly towards controversial hydro-fracking and deep injection wells even though neither is proven to be safe. Their policies put 84 percent of America’s fresh water, and 21 percent of the world’s, at risk.

There is a very real human cost to all of this too. As disinvestment and privatization of the public realm leads to a degradation of the commons, those few that can afford substitutive private amenities will increasingly disengage from the civic life and become less incentivised to invest tax dollars there. They will flee to gated communities, private country clubs and upscale private schools. The classes will not just be separated by income brackets but will be physically separated altogether.

Michigan Lawmakers should take a cue from the recent vote on proposal 6 as to how the electorate feels about those things, such as bridges, remaining in the public realm. It’s time they innoculate themselves from the Tea Party plague. If they refuse to protect public assets they themselves must go. Michigan cannot afford them anymore.

Amy Kerr Hardin of Democracy Tree