A couple of days ago I posted my thoughts about the reason for the rage of some on the right, where, coaxed on by talk radio, there have been disrupted town hall meetings (with the left responding in kind, including busing in union folk), and other protests, culminating in a “march on Washington” drawing about 50,000 – 70,000 last week.
A poll out today, however, paints a different picture of the public mood. The public by a small margin supports Obama’s plan more than it opposes it: 30% to 23%. Do the math and you see that nearly half of the country falls in the third category — they don’t know enough about it. Even more, nearly 80%, believe the Republicans do not have an alternative. And while there are lots of bills out there about health care from the GOP, no clear Republican alternative has been presented cogently to the American people.
And therein lies the conundrum for the GOP and their forceful opposition to President Obama. Reminiscent of the Democrats against Ronald Reagan back in the 80s, their focus is negative, lacking a positive alternative. And, so long as the opposition remains angry or emotional, the vast majority — what Nixon called the ‘silent majority’ — will be unlikely to join in that anger.
It’s easy to be in opposition. Look at the problems Obama is having figuring out what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq. In opposition the Democrats could be divided on what to do — leave completely, pull out slowly, or simply change the strategy. Yet they could unite behind the notion that Bush was doing it wrong, and that’s really all they had to do. Now that Obama has to make the call, anything he does can be criticized by the Republicans, and the Democrats find themselves internally divided. In the war debate the Democrats had it easy.
In the health care debate, now the Republicans have it easy. In any major reform there are winners and losers, and you can always find ways to rile up those who might lose, make predictions about things that might go wrong, and dissect the bill for controversies. No plan for any issue is perfect, there are always ways to tear it apart. We don’t know the impact of anything until it passes and is in effect for awhile. So the GOP and pundits on the right can anger people without having to deal with the reality of the health care crisis. Slogans like “we pay the most because we care the most” (an absurd claim, by the way) can patch over the real and intense problems surrounding health care and insurance.
And that’s OK, to an extent. That’s politics. You attack the other side’s plan and try to defeat it. At a certain point, though, if reality is not taken into account and an alternative isn’t forthcoming, the strategy fails. The emotion of the moment serves to distract the people from the fact that the Democrats have won the last two elections because people were not happy with the status quo. To the extent that the GOP is defending the status quo, the emotion will be short lived, and won’t turn into actual support.
Therein lies the limits of rage politics. It can grab headlines, but it rarely has breadth. Even if it fuels skepticism, without a positive alternative, it won’t help the GOP build true support. Yet the obvious solution — to come up with an alternative — is difficult.
Any real alternative that addresses the problems will itself be vulnerable to the kinds of attacks being made now against Obama. It will also have to acknowledge problems that have no easy answer. Moreover, to have any chance of success there would have to be compromises with the other side, and it’s hard to mix sincere negotiation and compromise with emotion and rage.
At this point, Republicans believe they are hurting Obama and some have publicly proclaimed a desire to “destroy” his Presidency. The politics of rage always creates the impression to those participating that their views are far more widely shared than they really are. For instance, protesters against the Iraq war had massive levels of rage and anger in 2004. It was not enough to defeat President Bush. He lost in 2008 not because of the rage, but because of a mass dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the belief that Obama offered a positive, hopeful alternative. The Democrats gained in 2006 because Iraq was in flames and the President’s policies had completely failed.
Moreover, rage politics wears out quickly. Those caught up in it fantasize that it could spread into some civil war or mass movement (remember Timothy McVeigh?), but people move on quickly. If some health care reform is passed, a new issue will capture people’s attention. Except for the absolute true believers, rage politics is a fad, unsustainable as everyday life problems mount.
At base rage politics relies on a belief that the “other side” is somehow of ill intent or with nefarious purpose. Against Bush it was symbolized by the neo-con’s supposed devotion to Israel, or the desire to pad the profits of oil companies or corporations like Halliburton. These are fascists, wanting to destroy the American dream and pad the pockets of corporate America. Against Obama it’s symbolized by larger government spending, a belief that he’s trying to radically alter the country and bring in socialism and weaken our values. And while there are certainly individuals who are corrupt and devious, most of the time it’s just different people with different ideas about what is best for the country. Most people on all sides of these issues are sincere in their intent to do the right thing.
Therefore, while the politics of rage has only limited strength, and ultimately must give way to a more positive message in order to succeed, if engaged in for too long or too much vehemence, can undercut the shared social and cultural norms that allow us to make compromises to pragmatically solve the problems we face. Perhaps in the first year of the Obama administration, with the world looking vastly different than even a couple years ago, rage from those upset about the direction of the country is forgivable and understandable. Ultimately, though, we have compromise and work together too.