the angry white u.s. voter, not dead yet

Paul Krugman, still rocking.
The Town Hall Mob
By Paul Krugman

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.

That’s a far cry from what has been happening at recent town halls, where angry protesters — some of them, with no apparent sense of irony, shouting “This is America!” — have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health reform.

Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison. I’ve gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.

And I can’t find any counterpart to the death threats at least one congressman has received.

So this is something new and ugly. What’s behind it?

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the “Brooks Brothers riot” in 2000 — the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington.

But Mr. Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights.

The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion — yes, that’s “billion” — in fines. You can’t make this stuff up.

But while the organizers are as crass as they come, I haven’t seen any evidence that the people disrupting those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. The question is, what are they angry about?

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.

And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

Many people hoped that last year’s election would mark the end of the “angry white voter” era in America. Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural and racial fear are a declining share of the electorate.

But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn’t living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of 2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.


redsock said...

Congressman Steve Kagen, (D-Wisc.) found himself interrupted during a town hall meeting on health care on Thursday evening which, considering the boisterous protests going on at these events all week, wasn't much of a surprise.

But towards the end of the Wisconsin Democrat's health care forum something a bit peculiar happened. A woman who initially identified herself as "just a mom from a few blocks away" who was "not affiliated with a political party" was outed by a reporter as a GOP operative who worked for Kagen's election opponent John Gard as well as the Republican Party of Wisconsin and the Republican National Committee.


impudent strumpet said...

I want to find that person who issues death threats to a politician for supporting health care, and find out what they would do in the face of something serious - like if someone kidnapped their child or something. Because if something that worst case raises your taxes is worthy of a death threat, you aren't leaving yourself much room for things that are actually bad.


people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program

What do they think it is?

Skinny Dipper said...

If I were Obama and Biden, I would combat the pseudo white racism that is present at these town-hall meetings on health care reform. I would get Biden to play bad-cop and speak harshly against these protesters. Obama can take the high road as president by saying that his health care proposals will be good for all Americans (black, white, latino, etc).

L-girl said...

Imp Strump, it is indeed very strange. Stranger than strange.

Skinny Dipper, that's not a bad idea. But I wonder what makes you think it's pseudo racism?

Sarah O. said...

Sara Robinson and Amanda Marcotte think these disruptions are race-based as well. I read a blog post by Marcotte yesterday (based on Robinson's work) that framed these disruptions/the birthers/etc, in terms of racism and facism. here.

johngoldfine said...

I'm half-dreading going back to work.

Every semester I have a few students who just have to Explain It All every essay they write: how the Commies are taking away their Second Amendment rights, forcing abortions on teenage girls, making religion illegal, pulling the wool over our eyes about Obama's birth certificate, and destroying that m-thing between one man and one woman.

Angry, white and teen--full of piss, testosterone, and dumb-fuck talking points. If that combo could lead to good writing, fine, I'd read it, but it invariably leads to rambling idiotic screeds sounding just like all the other rambling idiotic screeds. So, I have to try to convince them to write about stuff they actually know something about without them getting paranoid about a teacher trying to censor them and deprive them of their First Amendment rights.

I need all my professionalism sometimes to keep from saying, "That is such stupid Fox News Rush horseshit. Get a fucking life."

johngoldfine said...

I don't know what skinnydipper meant by pseudo-racism, but a lot of what masquerades as concern for health care, deficits, stimulus packages, and so on is a not-very-subtle way of allowing people who do not see themselves as racists (no Americans outside Aryan Nation would describe themselves as racists!) to give free rein to their rage at seeing a black man in the White House and all that it implies about the changes in America.

It's real racism, but 'pseudo' in the sense it dare not speak its name.

L-girl said...

Sarah O, thanks for that, I will definitely read it, maybe post.

John, geez, I would dread that! I thought it was bad explaining to my students (low-income inner city kids) that, yes they were looked down on and discriminated against, but no, eating Popeyes Fried Chicken would not make them sterile...

L-girl said...

a not-very-subtle way of allowing people who do not see themselves as racists (no Americans outside Aryan Nation would describe themselves as racists!) to give free rein to their rage at seeing a black man in the White House and all that it implies about the changes in America.

Yes, exactly, and very well said, thank you. Self-identification as racist is not commonplace, but racist attitudes and assumptions sure are.

L-girl said...

Sarah, I just took a quick peek at Sara Robinson's essay (which I'll read fully later). Along with many others, I've been banging the drum about fascism in the US for such a long time, so it's frustrating that people think Obama's election has somehow undone all the regression. I'm looking forward to reading Sara's take on that.

johngoldfine said...

John, geez, I would dread that! I thought it was bad explaining to my students...

Typically to deal with the ideologically obsessed, I show them how to create a blog and offer them a deal: write non-generic essays for my course and go for whatever they want on the blog; I promise to read and comment on whatever they post. When they see that I do what I promise, they usually lose interest in blogging pretty quickly, thank god.

Okay, so it's not true that Popeye's will make you sterile, but surely the other half is true: the company is owned by the Klu (sic) Klux Klan!

L-girl said...

Oh yeah, KFC, too.

Great thinking re blogging. Lucky for all of us they lack the discipline to stick with it!

johngoldfine said...

It is, in short, a movement made up of the enfranchised and enabled; people who have gained every benefit from the politics of America and yet who feel in their very bones that they are the oppressed ones, the ones who have nothing left to lose, so rapidly is America falling away from them. It is rare to run across any movement so deeply angry -- or more to the point, a movement which explicitly celebrates anger as the primary mission of their activism. They are not willing to listen to any factual evidence that contradicts their own beliefs in whatever dark conspiracies have been peddled to them; they have in fact made it their publicly proclaimed mission to block any such explanations from even being attempted.

That seems the operative element of discourse, of late. It is angry beyond any objective rationale. It is actively hostile to fact. It finds the mere premise of debating a political argument to be deeply offensive.

And as a movement, it is large," - Hunter, Daily Kos.

L-girl said...

Excellent! Could you post a link to that?

johngoldfine said...