Are Americans really that angry?
Published in Gulf News, 26 August 2009
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
In the United States, the most widely watched political video of the last week was filmed at a town hall meeting held by Barney Frank, a longtime congressman from Massachusetts known for his combative style.
Frank does not suffer fools lightly, be they fellow members of congress or the voters he relies on to keep his job. So when a woman waving a picture of US President Barack Obama sporting a Hitler moustache claimed the president's proposed healthcare reforms were modelled on those of the Nazis and asked Frank why he continued to support them Frank struck back.
"On what planet do you spend most of your time?" he asked, before referring to her charge that the president is a Nazi as "vile, contemptible nonsense".
When the woman continued to press her accusations, asking why he would not debate her, the congressman snapped:
"Ma'am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it."
Depending on your political affiliation this exchange represented either proof that Congress is arrogant and out of touch, or a welcome bit of common sense in a national 'debate' where it has been sorely lacking. Either way it begs the question, where is all of this anger coming from?
It all comes down to a single word: Astroturf. This bears explaining, especially since anyone trying to follow US politics from afar has probably run into it a lot lately.
Strictly speaking, 'Astroturf' is a name for a brand of artificial grass found in some sports stadiums. In common usage it means something fake that has been designed to look real. In politics it refers to citizen activism that appears to be locally organised but is, in reality, conceived and directed by lobbying professionals whose corporate clients stand to benefit if the 'ordinary citizens' get their way.
The concept is not new. Letter-writing campaigns designed to influence politicians have been around at least since the 19th century. Forty years ago it was a standard practice in the Nixon administration for the Republican Party to bombard the White House with praise-filled telegrams after every televised presidential speech. This allowed the White House press secretary to say, semi-truthfully, that reaction to the speech was running 10 or 15-to-1 in favour.
Political organising, of course, is not bad. Harnessing the energies and emotions of your side's supporters is how you get things done in a democratic country. The problem comes when organising crosses the line into agitation.
The trick is that this 'line' exists largely in the eye of the beholder. Just as one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, so one politician's angry mob is another politician's delegation of concerned citizens.
So is the emotion on display during America's summer of anger real? Or has it been cynically manufactured by health insurance companies jealous of their profits and GOP operatives who sense an opportunity to (in the words of one Republican senator) 'break' the Obama administration?
The answer, unfortunately, is both.
There is no doubt that many Americans are frightened, and have been frightened for the better part of the last year. Many people have lost their jobs and far more are afraid they will be next. There is a lot of fear in the country right now, and the fact that much of it is simply irrational does not change the fact that it is out there.
It is equally true, however, that Obama's opponents have diligently - and skillfully - worked to tap into this fear, amplify it and channel it to their own ends.
Over the last two weeks the Washington echo chamber embodied by the leading political websites and TV shows has concluded that people are angry, the president is off his game and that health reform, though not yet dead, is in serious trouble.
Of course, two years ago this week most of those political experts believed Hillary Clinton so certain to win the Democratic presidential nomination that serious debate on the topic was a waste of time. This time last year they pronounced the Obama campaign effectively over, flattened by the enthusiasm swelling around John McCain in the wake of his astute pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate.
To acknowledge that the rage filling TV screens is real is not the same thing as saying it is universal. Politicians know better than most that TV has a penchant for the loud and the disruptive.
America's legislative process is slow. The real debate in Washington has barely begun. With their own political credibility at stake it would be a mistake to count out either Obama or the millions of Americans who got him to the White House in the first place.
Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator based in Burlington, Vermont. He has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades.