The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, August 14, 2009

Angry America

We’re Mad as Hell but Both Republicans and Democrats Must Beware – It Really Is About More than Just Healthcare

In some ways, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is the ultimate example of a Washington establishment immoveable object meeting the irresistible force of heartland America discontent. His town hall meetings with constituents to discuss healthcare reform have been no louder or angrier than other members of Congress have faced. Yet no one has come across as more thunderstruck by the protestors, no one has looked more like a deer caught in onrushing electoral headlights.

Specter’s initial reaction/response to the angry crowds was an ineffectual blend of clueless stammering and pompous indignation. Yet in the midst of his verbal fumbling, he managed to produce both the truest and least true observations possible about the anger so prevalent in America.

The untrue statement by Specter regarding protestors is that they are “not necessarily representative of America.” According to him, “I think they're vocal. I don't think they're representative.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding, in my opinion. While it is not necessarily universal, most Americans are angry to some extent. There is anger driven by fear, anger driven by frustration, and anger driven by disgust.

There were signs of this anger at the various “tea parties” organized by conservative activists earlier this year but it really burst forth at the recent townhall meetings to discuss healthcare. This is where Specter’s insightful true observation comes into play.

“It's more than healthcare,” he said, referring to the fury of the crowds. “I think there is a mood in America of anger with so many people unemployed, with so much bickering in Washington . . . with the fear of losing their healthcare. It all boils over.”

Healthcare is just the final straw in systematic disgruntlement, whereby too many Americans see government as addressing the wrong players and the wrong problems. Bailing out big banks and General Motors while working people continue to see jobs hemorrhaging away may have been necessary but bound to be unpopular. Ensuring healthcare for those who do not have it today – the very poor and the very sick – is secondary to many Americans with health insurance, who want it to cost less and fear losing choices.

While unhappiness is very real and widespread, it burns most hotly among conservatives, for whom any attack against Obama policies is a good thing because it represents an attack against Obama.

Yesterday, MSNBC’s First Read noted, “Even though these town halls have been focused on healthcare, the frustrations are clearly about more than that for these conservatives who didn’t vote for Obama and would never vote for Obama. They are irritated with the direction of the country after the 2008 election, with a man as President they didn't vote for and a Congress ruled by Democrats. They are angry about being out of power and having – because of being in the minority – what they feel is no say.”

Today, Paul Krugman of the New York Times joined in agreement. “The truth is that the attacks on the President have no relationship to anything he is actually doing or proposing.” Rather, it is “the paranoia of a significant minority of Americans and the cynical willingness of leading Republicans to cater to that paranoia.”

Washington Post columnist David Broder thinks, “These angry opponents are playing with fire.” Remembering when some Texas conservatives pilloried Lyndon Johnson for selling out to “Yankee socialists” after he agreed to be John Kennedy’s running mate, only to end up caught in a backlash, Broder predicts the same fate for those stirring up crowds today.

As proof, Broder points to numerous columns and editorials written against disrespect shown toward elected officials. However, “I haven't seen any polls taken since the demonstrations began,” he admits.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll out this week casts doubts on Broder’s hypothesis. It found the recent town hall protests left thirty-four percent of respondents more sympathetic toward protestors, as opposed to twenty-one percent left less sympathetic. Particularly troubling for Democrats, Independent voters said they were now more sympathetic to protestors by a two-to-one margin.

House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, acting in the role of anti-Broder, issued this warning, “Those in Washington who dismiss the frustration of the American people and call it ‘manufactured’ do so at their own peril.”

Yet the chance of passing healthcare reform may not be quite as bleak as many on either side of the issue currently believe. The same poll found fifty-seven percent believe pre-existing concerns of average citizens were behind town hall protests, while forty-eight percent saw them as agitated by organized anti-reform activists. This means either Gallup surveyed one hundred and five percent of Americans . . . or many people realize a combination of catalysts is at work.

Likewise, while respondents found angry attacks against current healthcare reform bills were “democracy in action” rather than an “abuse of democracy” by a ten point margin, a bipartisan twenty-five point margin agreed that protestors jeering and shouting down supporters attempts to defend the legislation is an abuse.

There is no question that President Obama and progressive Democrats in Congress have made numerous mistakes with healthcare reform. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post succinctly summarizes the most significant of these.

“We should be having two debates. One should be about the obligation to ensure universal access to healthcare, which will directly benefit millions of struggling families and make this a better society. The other – a more complicated, difficult and painful discussion – should be about the long-term problem of out-of-control healthcare costs, which would be a looming crisis even if President Obama had never uttered the word ‘reform’.”

Obama and his supporters are working hard to communicate their message better but the damage done is probably irreparable. Healthcare reform, in whatever version it may pass, will be far less comprehensive and aggressive than anything envisioned by liberal Democrats, such as House Speaker Pelosi, and perhaps that is for the best. It is even possible that Congress will fail to pass healthcare reform altogether.

Yet Republicans rubbing their hands with glee at such a prospect may come to rue the tactics employed to make it happen. They have not manufactured public discontent but they have encouraged it, sometimes by malicious and duplicitous means. Many Americans are presently willing to take the wildest rumors floated about socialism and “death panels” and clutch them to their breasts like inexorable truths because it feeds their anger and anger is the only sense of empowerment they have at the present.

The problem is that anger, like fire, burns hotter when stoked into a conflagration but also burns out more quickly. By tapping into genuine restlessness and aggravating needless fears, without offering any real solutions of their own, conservatives may be wasting all their fuel on defeating a bill posing far less danger to their ideological interests than Cap and Trade or upcoming debates on immigration reform, national defense, and budget deficits.

Worst of all for them, 2010 may find voters burnt out on Obama and Democrats but equally cynical and apathetic toward Republicans as well.

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