When Rand Paul declared victory in Kentucky's senatorial race on Nov. 2, he characterized his win as a blow for the individual versus the state.
The crowd responded with a hearty shout of approval.
Paul is boyish-looking, with sensitive features that take on a sullen cast when he appears to be concentrating. This gives him a look reminiscent of the Civil War soldiers whose pictures were taken by portrait photographers 150 years ago. Like those soldiers, Paul seems to be itching for a fight.
Paul is in the disgruntled vanguard of the Tea Party-infused tidal wave that demolished Democrats in the midterm elections. Anger was the key ingredient driving self-identified independent voters to turn on their heels and reject Democratic candidates many had voted for during the previous two election cycles.
Things in the U.S. of A. haven't been all that great for the past four years or so. People are alienated and afraid. A lot of them don't have jobs – and many of those that do have jobs are deep in debt, with mortgages that are underwater or medical bills that weren't covered by their employer-provided health insurance. They feel like they're all alone, which, to a great extent, is true.
So when a Rand Paul says the fight is between the individual and the state, that's a fight these folks are ready to believe in.
But there's a problem with this Tea Party calculus. It's missing a crucial part. Call it community or society, the commons, the group or the tribe – the part Rand Paul leaves out is us.
The state is not some third party that's been parachuted in to oppress us. It's what we've made, for better or for worse, to, in the words of our Constitution, "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..." In other words, to take care of all those things that no individual can manage by him or herself.
Yes, we are all individuals and we have individual rights. But we individuals also live in communities and, as a matter of fact, the quality of our individual lives is determined to a very great extent by how well our neighbors are doing. If you live next door to a family with a house that's been foreclosed, you know what I mean.
It's not surprising that election analysts found the greatest unhappiness with incumbents in many suburbs and rural parts of the country, particularly in the South and our own Midwest. These are places where rugged American individualism has deep roots – and where interdependence has been obscured in favor of an idea of freedom based on unlimited consumption of goods and land.
If Tea Party politics have failed to catch on in America's larger cities, that could be because urbanites understand how dependent we are on one another – and that "the state" is the necessary firewall we have created to insure our health and safety. We can talk all we want about the genuine virtues of volunteerism and philanthropy, but these efforts won't keep our drinking water clean or our emergency rooms open.
It's ironic that at the same time Republican candidates were promising to cut spending and lower taxes, news was breaking in Indianapolis about the imminent unveiling of the Indy Connect regional public transit plan. After decades of dithering, Indianapolis and its surrounding metro area has finally come to the conclusion that, yes, we are a city after all. We are finally getting a grip on what other cities have known for generations: That public transit isn't merely an amenity, but a key to economic development and environmental sustainability.
Decisionmakers, from Mayor Ballard to the Chamber of Commerce, seem to agree that if Indianapolis is going to the next level – wherever that is – we need more buses and trains to get there. Needless to say, this will cost money: about $10 billion in all.
A week before the Republican landslide, the Indy Connect planners probably thought it was good news that most of this money could come from the Federal government. They probably thought that taxing local residents $15 a month to make up the remainder of the budget was reasonable.
I wonder what they're thinking now. At the very moment small town, suburban and rural voters throughout the rest of Indiana were painting the state red in what amounted to a taxpayer's revolt against "the state," leaders in and around the capital city were calling for a tax-supported state solution to make Indianapolis more interdependent.
The timing of this proposal couldn't be worse – or more instructive regarding the false choice presented by last week's election. If Rand Paul and his supporters are right, and our politics amounts to little more than a battle between the individual and the state, funding for public transit will likely have to wait in Indianapolis. Nothing says "rugged individualist" like the exhaust emitted from 10,000 cars at rush hour.