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Will the center hold for LPEA?

By Tom Givon

The recent LPEA elections bring to mind four memorable lines from W.B. Yeats' poem, The Second Coming, from 1920:

"Things fall apart, the center doesn't hold,

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity."

It is a familiar tale of polarization and politicization, and it didn't use to be this way. I remember my first La Plata County elections, 1976. You met your candidates face-to-face. Some of them you came to know and trust.

Come election time, you voted for the person, not the party. Especially when it came to LPEA - how much politics could there be in the production and distribution of electricity? It is, surely, a matter of engineering and common sense. Ever since the New Deal, Rural Electric Associations have been transforming rural America, making it possible to stay on the farm, to power an irrigation pump, to light up the barn for a sick mare. The REAs pulled us out of the Dark Ages with dependable, affordable electricity.

I date the current LPEA era, somewhat loosely, to Jeff Berman first running for the Board. Though to be fair, two national trends had conspired to transform our politics long before Jeff came along. First, the rise of the environmental movement, prompted by rapid degradation, pollution and over-population of the planet. Alas, this concern has remained largely the province of educated urban folks, who enjoy cracking dense scientific prose and complex rational arguments.

The second trend was the steady rightward drift of the Republican party, and with it rural America. The conflation of these two trends in the early 1970s yielded a toxic brew. On the one hand, red-blooded church-going rural America had never been all that enamored with science. Like all hard-working, down-to-earth folks - indeed like all of us - they respond better to hot-button rhetoric of cultural identity.

Soon, well-heeled manipulators - politicians, lobbyists, corporate suits - had managed to pry the formerly-Democratic working-class away from the old Roosevelt coalition.

If you want to see how this is done, go watch any good politician, say my good neighbor J. Paul Brown, ingratiate themselves to the home folks. You could almost hear them whisper: I'm your flesh-and-blood, I attend your church, cheer your sports team, drink the same whiskey, hunt bear with the same gun, wear the same cowboy hat. This seductive line has been phenomenally successful in flim-flamming hard-working, God-fearing rural America to vote, year in and year out, against its own economic interest.

It started with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in the 1970s, cemented by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, then enshrined in Newt Gingrich's "Contract on America" in the 1990s. Who do you think those dudes were fronting for?

Why has this cynical sales pitch been so successful? Here comes the sad part, how our educated urban professionals lost touch with church-going working-class America, those salt-of-the-earth folks, oppressed by corporate greed and confounded by the rising complexity and breakneck speed of our daily life. The educated "greens" don't speak their language; they disdain their religion, avoid their food and shun their music. To educated folks in their neat suburban neighborhoods, struggling rural America with its sagging porches and broken Chevy pickups on the weed-choked lawn is an alien planet.

The worst of it is, hard-pressed, working rural America is not blind, and whether educated folks mean to or not, they sure as heck come on as arrogant and condescending. All a smarmy politician or a sharp corporate shill need to do is channel rural America's profound resentment. This is the context where take-no-prisoners "green slates" can gang up, twice, on a fellow Democrat like Herb Brodsky, a good man with strong science and business background--but not enough of a flaming revolutionary. Where they can next try to take down Joe Wheeling, a man with solid credentials and a refreshingly Darwinian take on our global predicament, but alas too moderate. Where the futility can be further compounded by offering a thoughtful liberal like Bruce Baizel as sacrificial lamb to the equally-thoughtful conservative Jerry McCaw.

Not surprising, the LPEA board is evenly split now, effectively paralyzed. And it will remain paralyzed unless a pragmatic core emerges, one that could neutralize the ideologists on both sides and work towards a middle-ground consensus. Yes, that ugly-duckling, compromise. No shining City on the Hill. But then, we are in the midst of a global crisis; so half a loaf, however woefully short it may be of a full loaf, is still a heck of a lot better than no loaf at all. And having the right scientific argument is not much use if you can't communicate it in a language your fellow humans understand, and deliver it in a manner they won't find off-putting.

Back to Yeats. There is nothing wrong with passion. It stirs the old juices and concentrates the mind. But one needs to be careful how one projects one's passions. All too often, a raging passion - coupled with a sense of urgency and a vision of apocalyptic doom - can turn us into self-righteous fanatics whose every action will engender a stronger opposite reaction. So we may as well keep in mind that action is not about science, nor about truth, revealed or otherwise. More often than not, it is about politics, the art of the possible; and about human frailty and pain and our infinite capacity to misjudge reality and malign each other. And lastly, that revolutionary ideas are easier to implement in an evolutionary fashion.

Tom Givon lives near Ignacio.