The Limits of Rage Politics

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.

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  1. #1 by Josh on September 25, 2009 - 22:57

    Nice post, I agree with much of what you said. While I am more conservative, I get angry at pretty much any politician nowadays. Maybe I shouldn’t get so upset (maybe).

    It did seem like, however, that the boundary between rage and honest dissatisfaction was blurred by the media in August. For example, the media seemed to focus on the crazy Republicans during the town hall debates. They made it seem like ALL town halls were filled with mobs. Don’t get me wrong, there was A LOT of disagreement with the Democrats, but much of that disagreement was civil.

    Also, when Bush was in office, protesting was considered “the highest form of patriotism”. Now the media brands protesters as angry mobs. I sense inconsistency. Perhaps it has to do with your definition of “angry mob”?

    Overall, I feel there is a lot of unsureness about Obama right now. Not, however, in the way that Rush wants you to think. A more honest, “I don’t know what to believe right now” kind of thing. Sort of like that poll you cited.

    • #2 by classicliberal2 on September 26, 2009 - 00:14

      The teabagger mobs, in their various incarnations (including as townhall protesters), aren’t an expression of “honest dissatisfaction.” They’re expressions of carefully cultivated “rage,” organized around a series of fictions (“death panels,” Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, health care for illegal immigrants, etc.) by organizations specializing in “astroturf” campaigns. They have been the most successful such campaign in the history of simulated “grassroots” campaigns, but, at the end of the day, Scott is right; this kind of politics doesn’t have any depth. It’s something about which I was writing only a few days ago:
      http://lefthooktheblog.blogspot.com/2009/09/grassroots-astroturf.html
      The teabaggers don’t have any sort of program. Forget health-care–they don’t have any sort of program for anything, or even any central organizing principle beyond “we hate Obama,” based on a lot of things they’ve been fed that aren’t even true.

      • #3 by Josh on September 26, 2009 - 02:09

        I agree that the “death panel” folks were a bit over the top, but many who expressed skepticism at the town halls did not act over the top. Many of them were honest. There were honest dissenters during the Bush years, also. There are honest dissenters on both the left and right.

        I’ll consent that “Obama haters” are bad for political discourse. I also believe that the “Bush haters” are bad, too. Both of them were and are equally hateful toward their political opponents.

      • #4 by classicliberal2 on September 26, 2009 - 23:32

        There is an enormous difference between the “Bush haters”–and I am a 100% USDA-certified Bush-hater–and the “Obama haters” we’ve so far seen. The Bush-haters hatred was the rational–and natural–reaction of any citizen with any sense of responsibility. It was based on what Bush was doing. Not all of it, of course–there were those simple souls who believed Bush had a hand in the terror attacks on the U.S.–but by and large, that seemed to be the case. I can rant and rave at length about Bush, and often do. A rant of that nature from me does NOT include ridiculous conspiracy theories, lies, misrepresentations, and nonsense.

        On the other hand, like those “9/11 Truthers,” the “Obama haters” are, for the most part, entirely irrational. Their hatred is based on Obama not being a U.S. citizen, or being a Muslim, or creating “death panels” to kill old people, or trying to provide health care to illegal immigrants, or because he has “czars” in his administration, or because he wants to address school students, or because he’s a “socialist,” based on the bailouts, which are, in fact, aimed at saving various collapsed private industries, rather than permanently controlling them (and the bailouts are always attributed to Obama, though, in reality, every one, without exception, was an initiative of the Bush administration, and merely inherited). And so on. It’s something else every few days, and it’s all nonsense.

      • #5 by Josh on September 27, 2009 - 17:42

        I guess I just haven’t seen enough evidence to come to the conclusion that “Bush haters” are more irrational than “Obama haters”. I think this would be difficult to prove since Republicans pretty much say the same thing you just said about them. Frankly, I don’t think anybody should hate anyone, so I believe both “haters” are equally wrong.

        As soon as one plays the “this group is more extreme/irrational/racist than the other group” type of game, it turns me off to politics. I think we ALL need to admit openly to our own racist, irrational, and extreme tendencies first before accusing others.

      • #6 by classicliberal2 on September 27, 2009 - 19:14

        “I guess I just haven’t seen enough evidence to come to the conclusion that ‘Bush haters’ are more irrational than ‘Obama haters’. I think this would be difficult to prove since Republicans pretty much say the same thing you just said about them.”

        Bush haters are NOT more irrational than Obama haters (I’m assuming you just made an error, there, and meant to say the opposite?).

        Obama has only just taken office. I ran through a litany of the complaints against him, none of which have any foundation in reality. There are others, of course, but most of them are equally irrational. I covered the high points.

        There’s no such litany of ludicrousness underlying Bush hatred. Bush was a lawless right-wing thug who, without regard for the law or the U.S. Constitution, read our emails, spied on our phone calls, dug through our financial records, asserted he had the unchallengeable power to kidnap us and throw us in a hole without courts, laywers, any semblance of due process. He held he could try us in secret kangaroo courts with secret evidence and predetermined outcomes, and even murder us in secret, or just leave us down in that deep, dark hole forever. Or ship us to Syria to be tortured. He asserted, in writing, that he didn’t feel bound by hundreds of laws passed by our democratically elected representatives in the legitimate government, made official policy of baseless “legal opinions” that asserted, among other things, he could suspend the First Amendment at will, and adopted political cleansing of government agencies–if you weren’t a Bush loyalist, you were fired, and this was done without regard to the law, which prohibits this sort of thing when it comes to the career professional employees. The U.S. Attorney situation became a scandal–he fired some of his own U.S. Attorneys because they refused to drum up baseless but politically beneficial cases against Democrats, while pursuing well-founded but politically damaging charges against Republicans. What that overshadows is that Bush did exactly the same thing at the CIA, the Justice Department, the Defense Department, etc. It’s how “Brownie” ended up running FEMA. He was a horse-breeder with no experience in anything FEMA did, but he was a loyal Bushie and big contributor, so he got the job, and New Orleans was left to die. That’s what ran the country for 8 years, and that’s why people like myself despise Bush.

      • #7 by Josh on September 27, 2009 - 21:54

        I haven’t been able to conclude that Bush haters are more irrational than the Obama hating crowd.

        That’s fine if you believe that. I just haven’t been convinced. I also haven’t been convinced that Obama haters are more irrational than Bush haters. Both are equivalent groups to me.

        Perhaps you are right, however. Maybe one side is crazier than the other. If I come to that understanding, I hope I will be man enough to admit it. I mean that.

  2. #8 by Scott Erb on September 27, 2009 - 18:32

    Maybe I’m being too Vulcan, but I try to distance myself from the emotions and see that the real difference is that various groups have different perceptions about reality. Some — birther, truthers, etc. — are clearly embracing cultish like political perspectives. But I try to assume that those who disagree with me usually do so out of the best of intentions. I could never hate Bush in any event — I more felt sorry for him. I think he believed in his view of the US “liberating” the Mideast from tyrants and bringing democracy and markets to improve the lives of the people there. I think he just didn’t understand the forces he was dealing with, both over there, and those who influenced him here.

    • #9 by classicliberal2 on September 27, 2009 - 19:01

      That’s basically the Oliver Stone thesis, that Bush was a well-meaning idiot who got in way over his head, and that this makes him sympathetic.

      There are, as I see it, two basic errors in that analysis.

      The first is that even a cretinous imbecile (and Bush is certainly that) isn’t necessarily an innocent. Morons can have ill intentions, as well, and I think there’s more than enough evidence to support the case that this was certainly true of Bush.

      The second is that even if we accept the innocent cretinous imbecile characterization (which, I think, involves ignoring most of what we know about that administration), that’s still no argument for feeling any sympathy for him. Bush played games with the lives of literally millions of people. If he’s an imbecile, that doesn’t lessen his own culpability in that–it arguably makes him even worse. He had no idea what he was doing and plunged ahead anyway? It’s a horrible thought.

      Bush was a lawless, right-wing thug. The damage he’s done to our institutions will not be fully repaired in the lifetime of anyone reading these words. To put it bluntly, he earned the hatred of every citizen with any sense of responsibility.

  3. #10 by Eve on September 29, 2009 - 02:43

    I’m with Josh. I see little of substance and what appears to be a great deal of psychological projection on both sides. Bush isn’t even president any more and it’s easy to find (even here!) plenty of “raging” against Bush. The very things you say “the Republicans” are guilty of, you’re doing here yourself, as far as I can see. It all seems so tiring and useless.

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