The Right Opinion

Meanwhile, Back in America...

The growing distance between Washington and the public it dominates.

By Peggy Noonan · Feb. 1, 2014

The State of the Union was a spectacle of delusion and self-congratulation in which a Congress nobody likes rose to cheer a president nobody really likes. It marked the continued degeneration of a great and useful tradition. Viewership was down, to the lowest level since 2000. This year's innovation was the Parade of Hacks. It used to be the networks only showed the president walking down the aisle after his presence was dramatically announced. Now every cabinet-level officeholder marches in, shaking hands and high-fiving with breathless congressmen. And why not? No matter how bland and banal they may look, they do have the power to destroy your life – to declare the house you just built as in violation of EPA wetland regulations, to pull your kid's school placement, to define your medical coverage out of existence. So by all means attention must be paid and faces seen.

I watched at home and thought: They hate it. They being the people, whom we're now supposed to refer to as the folks. But you look at the polls at how people view Washington – one, in October, had almost 9 in 10 disapproving – and you watch a kabuki-like event like this and you know the distance, the psychic, emotional and experiential distance, between Washington and America, between the people and their federal government, is not only real but, actually, carries dangers. History will make more of the distance than we do. Someday in the future we will see it most vividly when a truly bad thing happens and the people suddenly need to trust what Washington says, and will not, to everyone's loss.

In the country, the president's popularity is underwater. In the District of Columbia itself, as Gallup notes, it's at 81%. The Washington area is now the wealthiest in the nation. No matter how bad the hinterlands do, it's good for government and those who live off it. The country is well aware. It is no accident that in the national imagination Washington is the shallow and corrupt capital in “The Hunger Games,” the celebrity-clogged White House Correspondents' Dinner, “Scandal” and the green room at MSNBC. It is the chattering capital of a nation it less represents than dominates.

Supposedly people feel great rage about this, and I imagine many do. But the other night I wondered if what they're feeling isn't something else.

* * *

As the president made his jaunty claims and the senators and congressmen responded semirapturously I kept thinking of four words: Meanwhile, back in America …

Meanwhile, back in America, the Little Sisters of the Poor were preparing their legal briefs. The Roman Catholic order of nuns first came to America in 1868 and were welcomed in every city they entered. They now run about 30 homes for the needy across the country. They have, quite cruelly, been told they must comply with the ObamaCare mandate that all insurance coverage include contraceptives, sterilization procedures, morning-after pills. If they don't – and of course they can't, being Catholic, and nuns – they will face ruinous fines. The Supreme Court kindly granted them a temporary stay, but their case soon goes to court. The Justice Department brief, which reads like it was written by someone who just saw “Philomena,” suggests the nuns are being ignorant and balky, all they have to do is sign a little, meaningless form and the problem will go away. The sisters don't see the form as meaningless; they know it's not. And so they fight, in a suit along with almost 500 Catholic nonprofit groups.

Everyone who says that would never have happened in the past is correct. It never, ever would have under normal American political leadership, Republican or Democratic. No one would've defied religious liberty like this.

The president has taken to saying he isn't ideological but this mandate – his mandate – is purely ideological.

It also is a violation of traditional civic courtesy, sympathy and spaciousness. The state doesn't tell serious religious groups to do it their way or they'll be ruined. You don't make the Little Sisters bow down to you.

This is the great political failure of progressivism: They always go too far. They always try to rub your face in it.

Meanwhile, back in America, disadvantaged parents in Louisiana – people who could never afford to live in places like McLean, Va., or Chevy Chase, Md. – continue to wait to see what will happen with the state's successful school voucher program. It lets poor kids get out of failed public schools and go to private schools on state scholarships. What a great thing. But the Obama Justice Department filed suit in August: The voucher system might violate civil rights law by worsening racial imbalance in the public schools. Gov. Bobby Jindal, and the parents, said nonsense, the scholarship students are predominately black, they have civil rights too. Is it possible the Justice Department has taken its action because a major benefactor of the president's party is the teachers unions, which do not like vouchers because their existence suggests real failures in the public schools they run?

Meanwhile, back in America, conservatives targeted and harassed by the Internal Revenue Service still await answers on their years-long requests for tax exempt status. When news of the IRS targeting broke last spring, agency officials lied about it, and one took the Fifth. The president said he was outraged, had no idea, read about it in the papers, boy was he going to get to the bottom of it. An investigation was announced but somehow never quite materialized. Victims of the targeting waited to be contacted by the FBI to be asked about their experience. Now the Justice Department has made clear its investigation won't be spearheaded by the FBI but by a department lawyer who is a campaign contributor to the president and the Democratic Party. Sometimes you feel they are just laughing at you, and going too far.

In the past five years many Americans have come to understand that an agency that maintained a pretty impressive record for a very long time has been turned, at least in part, into a political operation. Now the IRS has proposed new and tougher rules for grassroots groups. Cleta Mitchell, longtime attorney for many who've been targeted, says the IRS is no longer used in line with its mission: “They're supposed to be collecting revenues, not snooping and trampling on the First Amendment rights of the citizens. We are not subjects of a king, we are permitted to engage in First Amendment activities without reporting those activities to the IRS.”

* * *

All these things – the pushing around of nuns, the limiting of freedoms that were helping kids get a start in life, the targeting of conservative groups – all these things have the effect of breaking bonds of trust between government and the people. They make citizens see Washington as an alien and hostile power.

Washington sees the disaffection. They read the polls, they know.

They call it rage. But it feels more like grief. Like the loss of something you never thought you'd lose, your sense of your country and your place in it, your rights in it.

View all comments


Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Yes, Peggy,---This is what happens when DC Elites have an AGENDA of REIGN, rather than REPRESENTATION! They kicked out God three times, in Charlotte-North Carolina, at their smelly- rat Konvention.They believe that BIG GOV is OUR MASTER, rather than SERVANT. Bellicose arrogance, and haughty hubris, have replaced HUMILITY, if it ever existed in their black hearts of debt, depravity, disaster, and death-to-LIBERTATUM!!!"As Handsome Lake once said, "I would not want to be in their moccasins, for even one Sun---they bring US(A) BAD MEDICINE!!!"

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:08 AM

John in Saint Louis replied:

Peggy - Welcome

Better late than never.

Do you still think Glenn Beck is deranged?

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 9:50 AM

Dennis in Illinois said:

In spite of its incessant prattling about "diversity"", the left at its core wants mass uniformity. Every knee must bend.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 11:01 AM

Gregory Welch in South shore Boston, Ma. said:

My often repeated comment from a David Brookes interview with Obama before he became Pres., " the pants of his suit are so well pressed and creased, that I am impressed with this man." He would make a great Pres. Is David, a friend and associate of yours, still as impressed as the rest of the American people are now

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 12:06 PM

Edward Gonnella in Old Town said:

Your absolutely right. I wish there was something I could do. I cant donate to the cause I'm fighting to keep my humble house of 27 years. It will devastate my family with two smart kids who earned there way to full scholarships and are in college living at home.May God heip us all.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 2:00 PM

Mark Wilcoxson in Winnipeg, Manitoba said:

Thank you, Peggy, for yet another fabulous piece of thinking out loud. Your writing consistently gives me hope for our future and our children's future. Though I and my family have lived in Canada for going on seven years now (I pastor Bethesda Church here in Winnipeg.), I'm still very much engaged in U. S. news and politics. I continue to be concerned about the regressivism that is 'Progressivism.' The ultimate end of what is ironically called 'Progressivism' is not progress but anarchy. The question that continually concerns me is this: Does anyone really care?

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 2:01 PM

tdrag in South Carolina said:

Like a malignant tumor, the Federal Government has taken on a life of it's own. It does not respond to the demands of the taxpayers but grows ever larger, fertilized by those we "elect" to represent us and watered by the welfare state. For a long time now I have felt that this disease will not be cured by the Constitutional processes laid out by our Founding Fathers and defended with the blood of ordinary Americans. No, it will take even more blood to kill this tumor.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 3:21 PM

don chaulk in naples florida said:

I read Peggy frequently. This is maybe the best column ever. She put into words all my feelings. I have been looking for some vehicle to express my growing angry feelings. She hit it out of the park for me with this column. Thank you, thank you

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 4:13 PM

Orf in PA said:

I am glad you finally see what is happening to America. Government is no longer the servant of the people; it is the ruler of the people. With the current tyrant in the White House, Congress is no longer relevant unless they agree with the Obamanation. We have lost the Republic. We have lost America unless it can be restored by the blood of patriots.

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 4:21 PM

BuzzardB in Havertown replied:

I have to agree, unfortunately. The American citizenry need a conservative Congress and President.

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 8:34 AM

Tom Yon in FL replied:

Right on! Thomas Jefferson had it correct!

Monday, February 3, 2014 at 5:52 PM

amagi in Oregon said:

Perhaps we were in a masochistic mood when we watched the
SOTU Tuesday, sitting through the 85 painful applauses . My
husband's only comment when it was over, was: "Are they all
insane ?!"

Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 9:57 PM

joe in ft l replied:


Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 6:16 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

They make citizens see Washington as an alien and hostile power.

WOW, Noonen seems to now recognize the criminal treason being perpetrated in our Capital, by the Marxist Dictators who have replaced representation with Tyranny.

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 11:31 AM

JJStryder in realville replied:

Cut her some slack, she's real close to it all and may be the last to see the forest for the trees. Frankly, we could use all of the help we can get. better late than never.

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 12:41 PM

JJStryder in realville said:

The political elites in Washington and in many of our state capitals need to see more than just polls measuring our growing dissatisfaction. Growing public participation in voting, letter writing, town halls, civil disobedience large and small will illustrate clearly the limits to government power? Choose you battles wisely my friends. Our freedom depends on us all!

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 12:38 PM

Bud in The D-ivided States of America replied:

I didn't watch the tele-promtu edition of the O'SOTU spittle and blab. I did play back parts of it the next day, well after I'd had breakfast and the toilet was clear of all visitors. So, The SOTU, as it were, along with all the MSM Pomp & BS Bobble Heading, was over in about two minutes. I did the thing guys do with remotes to get over the dumb commercials in a recorded episode. So before I knew it, it was over. Then I fast forwarded to the Republican re-buttal. Senator Rodgers seems like a level headed woman, but she reminded me of Jimmy Carter in a peanut colored sweater giving us his suthun dribble non-solutions to some pretty dire times! Timid, Tepid, and about as actionable as John Boehner's sniveling BS in Congress.
Peggy, I'm still out to lunch on you because you seem to be a 'Switch Hitter'. This article was one of your better ones.

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 3:52 PM

Carole Mann in Texas said:

Who is it that does not know that most of the problems in Washington would be solved in 24 hr if congress had to abide by the same laws as "we the people"?????? Health care social security salary stops at end of term ?????

Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 6:32 PM

Paul Goode in Richmond VA said:

If Chuck Hagel and Hillary Clinton are hacks, what does that make a lightweight duchess of the keyboard?

Monday, February 3, 2014 at 10:49 AM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA said:

In spite of the fact that we do not reside in physical cages, we are all governmental slaves. The ones who do not comply are in a line for retribution for non compliance to governmental dictates.

Monday, February 3, 2014 at 11:41 AM

D K Roberts in Wellsville, Ks said:

Speaking of taking away: I had a friend, a decorated Viet Nam Army veteran whose wife was receiving a disability pension from Social Security because of crippling arthritis . He made a critical remark of the Gov't to the local newspaper and almost immediately the pension was revoked. He had to hire a lawyer to get it back. It cost him a lot but was able to have the pension reinstated. Don't tell me that the Gov't isn't too powerful. Just like Barak & the IRS scandal.

Monday, February 3, 2014 at 12:43 PM