05/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011


There's a new boogeyman in town, scaring an awful lot of Americans. And this time around, there's even less substance than there was the last go-around.

Twenty plus years ago, when the Berlin Wall--and Communism--fell, my wife made a wise and prescient comment. While everyone was celebrating, she observed that we were actually in big trouble. For half a century, Americans had a convenient explanation for any problem: the commies. If anything bad happened, no matter what it was (like, say, a bad economy), it was because of the reds. If you espoused an idea someone disagreed with, you were not just wrong, you were a communist. If you did something guessed it: commies. Thus, back in the sixties, when I wore long hair in my conservative Bronx neighborhood, drivers used to slow down and yell out, "Communist!" For long hair. I suspect that most of them had no idea of what communism was (or socialism, or capitalism for that matter), that they wouldn't know a commie if one bit them on the heinie.

So when the wall fell, we also lost our best boogeyman, our cheap easy answer for all that ails us. And we have needed another one for a long time. It seems that, for many Americans, they have found a new version, just as demonic, just as all-enwrapping, just as dangerous. They call it...the federal government.

There are a lot of signs of this. The Tea Party campaign can hardly be called a movement, it is so dispersed in its philosophy, covering an amazingly broad range of issues, ideas, and temperaments. But one main thread is that they don't like the feds. In any way, shape, or form. Somehow state, county, and local governments don't seem to be nearly the menace.

Then there is the modern nullification movement. State legislatures are passing bill after bill, all of which declare that federal law doesn't apply in their jurisdiction. Mostly on gun laws, but other items as well. Their big idea is that the Tenth Amendment trumps all, the one that says states have rights not assigned by the federal government. If John C. Calhoun was still alive, he would be downright ecstatic. Of course, a huge body of decisions since the Civil War indicates that all these attempts will be shot down in the courts, but what the hell, it's lots of fun and drums up votes for right wing demagogues.

One thing about this fear, however, is that it reflects real worries, some grievances that are legit, just as some are delusional.

The wacky ones all stem from a fear of change: of an America once again becoming a nation of immigrants, of different languages and faces, of new technology, of a changing economic landscape and of a president who doesn't have a name off of the Social Register. The list goes on forever.

But other fears are quite real. Everyone hoped that the economic recovery would be a tidal wave, sweeping away bad memories. Instead it has become an eye dropper, administering dribbles to cure a serious disease.

Unemployment, for example, still ravages the land. The numbers are high, and no one can even calculate the fear that this has caused, particularly among working, but marginal folks. Both my parents worked throughout the Depression, but nevertheless it traumatized them, in part because of their deep concern for others, in part because they worried that they could be next.

And there are lots of other things to be angry about. Try financial institutions that haven't learned a damned thing, are still creating funny financial instruments, while handing out bonuses that make ball players look like they're on welfare (a remarkable achievement, unto itself). These grievances are legitimate, and again, the roster is long.

And what is causing all of this? The answers, as they usually are, are probably complex. That doesn't excuse anyone who honestly seeks a solution; the task may be harder, but the need is still there.

And if you can't handle complexity, the answer is simple: it's the federal government's fault. The boogeyman is back. Millions of Americans feel better now.