Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Daily Strike-8/12/09-On Town Hall Protesters

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. While Congress is out of recess this month, some of my entries will be less geared to what happened during the day in politics, but rather will focus on something I've just been itching to write about. Today will be one of those entries.

TOWN HALLS: I have been struggling to make sense of the crazy people who have been shouting down members of Congress at town hall meetings, ostensibly in protest of the health reform proposals. I think a lot of liberals are using the cop out explanation, that these protesters are "astroturfers" being propped up by industry and right-wing research groups. In other words, they don't really care about health insurance reform, they're just being paid by fat cats to make it seem like there is widespread opposition to reform. There is a minor grain of truth in that explanation. A lot of right-wing groups, and their industry allies are spending a lot of money to organize opposition rallies. But when I see the amount of pain and anger on these people's faces as they scream at members of Congress, when I see them bring home-made signs railing against Obama and calling him a socialist, when I see people invoking Nazi Germany and bringing guns to town-hall meetings, I can no longer dismiss these outbursts as simply manufactured anger.

In fact, I think that would be letting some of these crazy people off too easy. Have you seen some of the footage from these events? There was the woman at an Arkansas event who wept about how she "wants her country back." There was the old man in Pennsylvania who got in Senator Arlen Specter's face and told him that he will one day be judged by God. One Congressman was famously hung in effigy, while another was followed to his car by an angry mob of people shouting "just say no."

We can easily categorize the demographics of these people. For one, they are almost entirely white. They tend to be older; in fact a lot of them are senior citizens currently benefiting from government-run Medicare. They mostly show up at town halls in suburban, exurban or rural areas. And they won't come without paraphernalia to prove how "pro-America" and "pro-freedom" they are, even as some of them talk about overthrowing their duly elected government.

What we cannot easily categorize are what in the world is making these people so bitter and angry to the point where they get up and scream at a town hall meeting. The most striking part to me about all of this is that when these people get up and ask questions, or if they are interviewed by outside media, they never mention anything that's actually in any of the health care bills. None of them really even mention the fake things that are in the health care bills, like Sarah Palin's famed death panels. Instead, they speak in broader terms about what they think is happening. The words I hear most frequently: Socialism, rationing, government control, taking away our freedom, wanting our country and our constitution back etc. These words can't be rationally related to H.R 3200 or any other health care bill, because at their core, the bills are moderate attempts to perfect the system we currently have, and to add new options for people who are uninsured. So what is the cause of this underlying anger? And why are they getting so much attention for it? It comes down to several key points.

1. The most important point, which the Big Picture so rightly reminded me of when we were discussing this piece, is the general lack of security people feel in their own lives. Many of these people have lost their jobs, or lost their health care. Some of them have lost their life savings. They are not being protected by any sort of strong social safety net, and thus worry about making ends meet. A lot of people don't quite know where to channel this insecurity. It's not even just purely their own security, but the sense that their community is declining, that their children will be worse off, that they're barely hanging on now but further change will take away the security they currently are clinging to. That's where scapegoating comes in. Even though there is nothing in any health reform bill about covering illegal immigrants, protesters insist that there is. They blame our government, which they feel hurts them to help people who don't deserve to be helped,. They worked so hard for so many years and played by the rules! How is it that companies are getting all these bailouts and freeloaders are taking all our health care money? Isn't this the same government that gave jobs to undeserving minorities instead of me? For a lot of these people, they associate government "change" with policies that have made their lives worse, and that have decreased their status in society. How can they possible accept more of that change?

2. Those fears are nothing new. They helped propel Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1980. What is new is that whites are actually losing power.We can't deny that some of that insecurity comes from racial and cultural tension. It's not just that there is a black President, and a Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. Minorities, especially Latinos, are growing in size and influence, and have helped propel Democrats to victory across the country. I think there is a sense among these protesters that the country they grew up in, the comfortable life they had before blacks took advantage of the Fair Housing Act and moved into their neighborhoods, before they had to be so politically correct, was actually the "Real America." That's how I would interpret the "I WANT MY COUNTRY BACK" talk.

3. The 24 hour news cycle and the Internet are turning people into drones who will believe anything. With so many choices out there, a lot of people choose what and who they want to listen to. If you believed everything Glenn Beck said on Fox News or Sarah Palin said on her Facebook page, then you would probably think our government is headed towards the use of eugenics. Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators have huge ratings right now. They rant about all the people who are ruining America, and it makes the listeners feel better, because they have outlets to channel their anger. These commentators also do such a great job discrediting the mainstream media. People will believe pure BS from Beck and O'Reilly, and even when the information is fact-checked by non-partisan organizations, that fact-checking is easily dismissed because Beck and O'Reilly already convinced us they have a liberal bias!

4. The Republican party and its leaders in Congress know that they will reap political benefits if this bill fails. They have absolutely no reason to want this thing to succeed, because if it does, their electoral prospects will be even dimmer than they are right now. Therefore, they are happy to enable angry and anxious voters by supporting them financially, encouraging them to show up at meetings, and feeding them false, outlandish information.

5. Finally, these protests are cat nip to the mainstream media. Not only are they rowdy scenes which make good clips on cable TV, but they enhance the tempting storyline that Obama's popularity is fading, and that he is on a course of failure. The media gives the protesters the benefit of the doubt, because they are not the sort of scary, anti-war, black radical protests of yesteryear. Look at them! They're white and middle-class! They're pro-freedom! They're carrying American flags and singing "God Bless America!" They're freedom loving patriots protecting the people from the government!

The last three points I make here (related to the media) are not worth analyzing too much or complaining about. They are realities about the political climate we live in, and we have to do our best to counter them.

The first two points should give us cause for great concern. These are the people that would be helped most by health insurance reform and other Democratic proposals, but because of deep-seeded anger and prejudice, they are becoming the face of the opposition. Many of us, including me, have a tendency to look down on these people and dismiss them as hopeless racist wingnuts. No doubt, some of them are. A lot of these people have warped world views and are ideologically opposed to helping other people. But for the rest of them, the people that are genuinely concerned, and genuinely insecure, we need to empathize with them. We need to show them that we understand their pain, and sympathize with their insecurities. Most of all, as The Big Picture wisely notes, we need to enact policies that make their lives more secure and give them better opportunities to live out the American dream. The message to members of Congress who are hearing these protests and are becoming nervous about voting for health reform should remember that the best way to change people's minds is not to demean them or take them on point-by-point at a town hall meeting. It is to make their lives better. Vote for a bill that does that. It will help you politically in the short-run, and it will make our country a better place in the long-run.

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