This blog entry is about patience in American policies – or rather the lack thereof. So, let’s get to it. I know you don’t have all day! But first… if you could spare me some of your time… I want to talk about… time.
In classical Newtonian physics, time is a measurable quantity that it is always moving forward. The English astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington referred to this as the “arrow of time”. This makes it a reliable part of the equations that help us determine distance, acceleration, velocity… However, in quantum physics, time is not such a solid thing but rather is a matter of your perspective relative to something else. A classic example of this is Albert Einstein’s “twin paradox” (which is explained pretty well with cartoons in a link here – warning, it is five minutes long… Sorry!) where the twin, traveling at close to the speed of light in a cool spaceship, ages much more slowly than the twin left to wait in line to get his weekly latte back on Earth. In the realm of our everyday lives, we also understand that time is not a fixed thing. When there is not enough to do or you are stuck doing something you don’t like, time can drag. Conversely, when you have a deadline in two hours, time can move too quickly. It is all perception and it is all relative.
There have been a flurry of articles on the Internet, noting that the tendency of our modern society is to see time moving too slowly. This tendency to be in a hurry and impatient with things that take too long has led to consequences ranging from the relatively trivial to the increasingly serious. A trivial example (as long as you do not own a golf course) is the decline in the number of golf courses because people have so little time for a game that can take hours. As one course owner says in the Economist story “Handicapped,”I sometimes believe that I could give golf away, and they still wouldn’t come.” On the more serious side, an “Impatient Society” leaves us unable to focus long enough to stay on task politically or economically without demanding immediate gratification or results. So, something with more long-term ramifications such as climate change, global terrorism, or debt reduction tend to garner as much attention as the latest poll numbers or the latest “outrage” committed by one’s ideological foes. As Terry Newell noted back in 2010 (like, that was AGES ago…), if the American people had been as impatient in the past, there would have been no Marshall Plan that helped to stabilize Europe after the war, no moon landing program (which had a tragic setback along the way) no interstate highway system to help us travel to places more quickly. Is it irony that we would have been in too big of a hurry to take the years to make a system that helps us travel to places in a hurry?
Can we explain all of this impatience easily? Probably not. As with many societal developments, it has many causes. Some, such as President Barack Obama, have blamed the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. Tara Sonenshine, in her article “The Age of American Impatience,” lists her top three causes as technology (“Technology brings real benefits. Patience just happens not to be one of them.”), economics (“It is hard to feel patient when you are fighting a daily struggle to find work or feed your family.”) and politics (“impatience is not a partisan issue). While the History Rhymer thinks these factors probably have played the most important roles in our culture of impatience, there is one more to mention – the telescoping of events. To demonstrate this, I will compare current American political developments to those which led to the holiday we are celebrating today in the United States – Independence Day.
Before we examine our example of how telescoping and impatience have come together on this page, we need to take the time to define what exactly we mean by the term and to see if there are variations on the phenomenon. In a quick glance, the meaning of the term “telescoping” seems rather obvious – making objects that are far away seem closer. In most cases, that is exactly what is meant, such as when the term is used to criticize a particular movie about historical occurrences or a network such as The History Channel. However, a telescope like that used by Galileo to observe the moons of Jupiter has two ends. Vicki Morwitz, in a 1997 edition of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, notes that “people have a systematic tendency to recall that recent events occurred farther back in time (backward telescoping) and distant events occurred more recently (forward telescoping).” I would also include in the definition of forward telescoping the tendency to see events as having occurred in a shorter period of time. The events we will now compare (the American Revolution and the rise of the Tea Party) have elements of both types of history. Perhaps that explains why there is so much impatience surrounding the topic of the Tea Party and its goals.
According to the modern Tea Party movement’s history, it was founded on September 2, 2004. However, for many, the first awareness of the movement occurred on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19, 2009 when CNBC reporter Rick Santelli spoke out against a proposal by the Obama Administration to help homeowners facing foreclosure to refinance their mortgages. Santelli asked on live TV, “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages? This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” By the time of the 2010 election cycle, the Tea Party movement was having an impact on the Republican party when an official Tea Party caucus was founded in the United States House of Representatives and in national elections when Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY), were elected to the Senate.
While the movement seemed to have a lot of momentum, the Tea Party faced mixed electoral results afterwards. As we would expect after looking into America’s impatience problem, those who supported the party began demanding more vigorous efforts, while those opposed to them saw the beginning of its end. If you do a search for “Tea Party decline” on the Internet, a variety of articles will appear. Some of these articles are of more recent origin such as the March 2014 report from the Washington Post called “10 Signs The Tea Party Is In Decline,” or the January 2015 report from MediaMatters.org “Sarah Palin and the Demise of the Tea Party Media.” However, stories like these started to emerge as early as 2011 (e.g. the November 2011 US News & World Report story “The Decline and Fade of the Tea Party”). Considering that the Tea Party had only been a political force since essentially late 2009, this rush to write its obituary seems hasty. However, the idea of backwards telescoping is helpful here. In that model, events of only a few years end up magnified into a much longer period. After all, the Tea Party seemed on the news all the time (especially on Fox). It would be understandable that it seemed like they had existed longer than they had. The rises and falls of any political movement would be magnified under that lens.
As we celebrate the Declaration of Independence (although it probably should have been on July 2nd), we should be thankful that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin… did not try to break away from the British Empire in a world like ours. It probably would not have been given the time to occur. As was mentioned before, the modern Tea Party movement faces an impatience that comes from backward telescoping (seeing recent events occurring father back in time). It is also plagued with the dilemma that the revolution after which they take their lead is an example of forward telescoping (historical events occurring in a shorter period of time). If you ask a typical American about the events that led up to the founding of the nation, you probably would have someone mention the Declaration of Independence. They will probably even know the date we celebrate. If the respondent knows a little more, he/she may know about the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Yorktown. What they probably would not realize is that the events that led to the revolution essentially began about 25 years before the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783. According to the “Timeline of the Revolutionary War” on USHistory.org, the early events that started making men like Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin were often separated by years: the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), the Boston Massacre (1770), the Boston Tea Party (1773), and the “Intolerable Acts” (1774). Even after the Declaration of Independence, the pace of events was often slow and drawn out: American victory at the Battle of Saratoga (1777), American alliance with France (1778), British surrender at Yorktown (1781). In the meantime, there were many setbacks: Washington’s retreat from New York City (1776), the British capture of Charleston, South Carolina (1780), and the mutiny of unpaid Pennsylvania soldiers (1781). Fortunately for those of us who live in the United States, the late eighteenth century was a more patient time. Perhaps that is something to consider when we look at current events and the pace at which they happen. All it takes is a little time and a dose of patience.