Most of the facts are well known by now. Democratic politicians returning to their home districts during the August recess have been met with a loud and angry opposition. Not in every instance, but in enough cases to make a difference, the conflict has exceeded the norms of civility. And now, in a Gallup poll published on the front page of USA Today, comes the news that these town hall protests have had an influence on so-called independents, two to one against Democratic policy prescriptions.
Liberals and progressives have badly underestimated the strength and resilience of their opposition. While a more humane national health care policy is still entirely possible, Republicans and conservatives retain the ability to stop the drive forward -- like scabs on a union workplace strike. (This is not fascism, by the way, but that is a topic for another discussion.)
Let's begin with the "the screamers are so uncivil they are ruining the chance for a public discussion" thesis. It does not take all that much memory to recall the time when Democratic and Republican politicians supporting the Vietnam War were met with just the kind of loud and impolite behavior we see in these town halls meetings today. In fact, the Vietnam War protests were more raucous. While the political differences between war protestors and health care opponents are real, telling people to sit down and shut up and talk to each other like they were in a schoolhouse library did not have any effect back then. And we should not expect such imprecations to "civility" to have any effect now. In fact, such calls for calm are more than likely to have the opposite effect.
Yes, the so-called "right wing shock troops" mangling the health care debate have been egged on by TV and radio talkers like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Yes, pharmaceutical lobbyists and others corporate-types intent on protecting their profit margins have spent millions ginning up a wild in the streets opposition. Those facts are well documented on www.AlterNet.org by Adele Stan and others--including Bill Berkowitz on www.Buzzflash.com.
Nevertheless, it is mistake of the first order to regard these protestors as simply fake grass roots, the Astroturf of Paul Krugman's imagination, called upon by Republicans and corporate lobbyists to yell and scream on command. Please remember how wrong the McCarthyites of the 1960s were when they regarded anti-war protestors and the black freedom movement of that time as alien creatures manufactured in the Soviet Union. The mistake here is not just that of false attribution, but the unwillingness to conceive of the opposition as an autonomous social force, developing along lines of its own making.
That is precisely what is happening now: the development of something new, the ultimate shape of which has not yet been established. It looks now like an opposition "bloc," with many different political elements: ultra-conservative Republicans of both the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax Tea Party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian right activists intent on re-molding the country into their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant nativists of the armed Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party "constitutionalists;" and white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety. Pro-capitalist corporate lobbyists and anti-capitalist fascists together.
This bloc has been in formation step by step since the inauguration. First, the anti-tax Tea Parties in April began energizing white people in suburban and ex-urban communities. After Republican bigwigs like Newt Gingrich pulled out, a harder core held together through a second set of Tea Parties in July. Then Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination allowed the white people-are-a dispossessed majority-crowd to grab the platform and explicitly re-introduce racism into the discussion.
For the angry middle Americans who are the spine of this opposition, this debate is not really about specific legislative policies. For them the issue is whose America is the real America. Is it Sonia Sotomayor's or Sarah Palin's? Is it Barack Obama's or is it Pat Buchanan's? Is it Nancy Pelosi's or is it Phyllis Schlafly's? These are existential questions of national identity -- the type that will continue to generate real raw emotion long after the debate about health care policy is settled.
Leonard Zeskind is the author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux.