The Party of Despair

California Congressman Fortney "Pete" Stark was caught on tape in June insulting a constituent at a town hall meeting. When the voter identified himself as a member of the Minutemen, Representative Stark asked him, "Who are you gonna kill today?" The taped exchange has gone viral.

I watched Mr. Stark with fascination and a bit of nausea, incredulous that he's been representing his district since 1979. Reading his words is disturbing, but watching the video is astonishing. A few minutes into it, I discovered that I know Pete Stark. In fact, every single one of us knows Pete Stark.

Congressman Stark is a living, breathing, textbook example of a crotchety, sour old coot. He's the codger in bed 301B who snarls at the nurse for not answering his call bell in thirty seconds. He's the crabby customer who yells at the cashier, certain he didn't get the senior discount on one item. He's the quintessential cranky old guy down the street, yelling at the neighborhood kids: "Get off my lawn!"

What is most surprising about Pete Stark is not that he's 79, or that he's been a congressman for decades, or even that he's aged so disgracefully. The surprising thing is that in today's Democratic Party, he is so typical. After reading the bios of today's liberal Democrats, it's hard to distinguish Washington, D.C. from Jurassic Park. For example, here are a few facts about some of our leading Democrat dinosaurs:

Nancy Pelosi: 70 years old, in Congress for 23 years.

Harry Reid: 71 years old, in Congress for 27 years.

Charles Rangel: 80 years old, in Congress for 39 years.

Barney Frank: 70 years old, in Congress for 28 years.

Barbara Boxer: 70 years old, in Congress for 28 years.

Steny Hoyer: 71 years old, in Congress for 29 years.

So what? you may ask. Many people in their 70s and 80s lead productive lives. My question is not why so many in the Democratic Party in Washington are elderly. Experience counts. What puzzles me is the almost universal cantankerousness among them. For example, a few weeks ago, Democrat Congressman Bob Etheridge, 69, who has represented his North Carolina district for 14 years, was caught on camera actually assaulting a student who merely asked him if he supported President Obama's agenda. 

Representative Barney Frank, 70, has been fêted for decades in the mainstream media for his acerbic wit. When confronted by constituents at a health care town hall meeting last summer, however, he snapped, attacked, and snarkily told one lady, "Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table." Quite the sparkling wit, isn't he?

And let's not forget Senator Barbara Boxer, 70, berating a brigadier general for calling her "Ma'am" instead of "Senator." It wouldn't have been out of place if she had added, "You young whippersnapper!"

As I pondered the personalities of these elder statesmen in the Democratic Party, I tried to figure out what lies at the root of such behavior. It couldn't be merely a matter of old age. Consider Ronald Reagan. I couldn't think of an incident where President Reagan at the same age was rude and insulting to an average voter.

I decided to dust off my psychiatric nursing training and review Erik Erikson's Stages of Development. Erikson was a psychoanalyst whose theory was that every person must pass through a series of eight interrelated stages over the entire life cycle. These stages are characterized by a conflict or crisis between two opposing emotional forces. For example, Erikson's first stage (Birth to 12 to 18 Months) is known as "Trust vs. Mistrust."

All of the Democrats I've referenced fall into Erick Erikson's final stage: Late Adult, Age 55 or 65 to Death. The crisis is Integrity vs. Despair. In this stage, we look back over our lives and review our achievements and contributions to future generations. This is also the time when we inevitably face our own mortality. To explain further:

Integrity means feeling at peace with oneself and the world. No regrets or recriminations. The linking between the stages is perhaps clearer here than anywhere: people are more likely to look back on their lives positively and happily if they have left the world a better place than they found it - in whatever way, to whatever extent. There lies Integrity and acceptance.

Despair and/or 'Disgust' (i.e., rejective denial, or 'sour grapes' feeling towards what life might have been) represent the opposite disposition: feelings of wasted opportunities, regrets, wishing to be able to turn back the clock and have a second chance.

What is it about being a liberal that seems to lead inexorably to despair in old age in the 21st century? I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with a liberal in academia or media or politics who can be described as a "Happy Warrior." Compare George H.W. Bush to Jimmy Carter. Two former presidents who perfectly illustrate Integrity vs. Despair.

The old cliché goes: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Liberals have achieved their greatest ambition: power. They have passed comprehensive health care reform and massive stimulus bills. The media obediently cheer their every move. And yet it is obvious that they are leaving the world in a much, much worse condition than what they were given. Their grandchildren will never pay off the debt. We are farther from racial unity, not closer. All their education dreams have been implemented, and our children are dumber. And on and on.

Erikson's stages are unrelenting. Every one of us must pass through them. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense why our elderly Democrat politicians are so nasty. They have had the opportunity to implement everything they've devoted their entire lives to, and it's been a spectacular failure.

Erikson's final stage also explains another mystery: Why do so many politicians refuse to retire? If one reviews one's life and sees only wasted opportunities and failed programs, how could retirement be an option? So we are faced with the tragic picture of politicians like Arlen Specter refusing to leave the stage. Just one more term, just one more.

And as liberal politicians face the mess that is their agenda, they have an even greater problem. If they wish to stay in public life, to have that coveted second chance, they need the support of their constituents. Suddenly, it makes perfect sense why Pete Stark lashes out at the previously docile average voters who are now rejecting him. Without them, he's out, finished, alone with his regrets. No wonder he and his fellow senior citizen liberal comrades are so cranky.

I'm submitting a new motto for 2010:

Today's Democrats: The Party of Despair. From "Happy Days are Here Again" to "Get off my lawn!"

Carol Peracchio is a registered nurse.
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