The uproar over the TSA partly reflects the substance of the matter, but also reflects the fact that the TSA embodies all the things that energized the electorate a couple of weeks back. It is the epitome of a distant, callous bureaucracy that seems to have been inoculated against common sense. It is the avatar of big government yielding big aggravation and small results.
And the agency’s reaction to the firestorm of criticism is also emblematic of the problems that are fueling popular discontent:
A senior Homeland Security official (who would not allow his name to be used) told CNN this week that “the mood at DHS and TSA is anger.” The official griped to CNN that the real outrage was how TSA agents were being treated. In San Diego, one such agent “was accosted and verbally abused by a member of the traveling public,” said the official. “The fact that some in the media would hail the traveler as some kind of folk hero is shameful.”
Well. I guess it’s all even then. We’re angry at them. They’re angry at us.
The DHS/TSA anger betrays an attitude that is, in fact, the source of the popular discontent. The attitude is one of cluelessness mixed with arrogance. “We’re from the government and here to help”–what Ronald Reagan called the nine scariest words in the English language. All the while not recognizing that those that they are allegedly helping don’t think that they are in fact being helped, and indeed, feel that they are being abused, belittled, ignored and degraded all for no demonstrable benefit.
In brief, DHS/TSA views the populace as ingrates. The populace views DHS/TSA as insufferable, abusive, and out of touch. That’s an unbridgeable gap.
This mutual alienation between TSA and vast swathes of the public is symptomatic of a far more widespread phenomenon. The attitude of many in government is that Father Knows Best, and us children should just shut up and follow directions. The attitude of the majority of the citizenry is that the government doesn’t have a clue, and they bridle at the Olympian disdain emanating from just about everybody in DC from Obama on down, a disdain that seems entirely unwarranted given the piss poor performance that characterizes so much of what the government presumes to do.
Moreover, there has always been a broad rebellious streak in the American populace, far less of a tendency to accept docilely that the government is wiser and inherently worthy of deference than is the case in most other countries. Sufficiently provoked by a pushy government bureaucracy, that rebellious streak is activated.
The TSA has become the bulls-eye of this anger because unlike many bureaucracies, it deals out its indignities wholesale, in the public eye. Millions experience it every day. Millions more can see it because it occurs in full public view. And many of those who see it, having flown themselves, can readily identify with those who are mistreated.
If DHS/TSA continue to respond to the criticism with sullen–and not so sullen–assertions that they’re right and aren’t going to change, the conflict will only escalate. They will only feed the growing belief that the government as a whole is utterly unresponsive to citizen concerns.
A good chunk of the country spoke pretty loudly on 2 November. It’s pretty clear that many people were not listening, or uncomprehending, or just don’t give a damn, e.g., Obama, the Democratic House caucus that retained the leadership that personified what angered the public. TSA and its injured and outraged reaction to the outrage directed against it just indicates that they aren’t listening either. Which is why this controversy will only fester, and why it is bigger than the TSA, scanners, and officially sanctioned sexual assault. It is a highly visible example of a more fundamental conflict: a profound alienation between the people and a government that in theory is the government of, by, and for the people.
As long as those in government continue to channel Dick Tuck, that alienation will only intensify. And the political implications of that will be seismic.