May 2, 2012
Why Are They So Angry?
I was at my polling place most of the day on Primary Day, April 24, 2012, in my capacity as Democratic Committeeperson in Bala (PA). Since the primaries in Pennsylvania are “closed,” the Committeepersons, or greeters, rarely get to talk to the other side’s voters. So this is about the Democratic voters, the 20 % of Democratic registered voters who turned out. What struck me was the level of anger among some people disappointed with Obama.
First, it should be said, that my encounters ran the gamut, ranging from a few enthusiasts about Obama, to a few downright opposed. Most of the opinions I detected were in –between, but most were unenthusiastic. And, these were Democrats. In the few actual conversations I could manage, I detected a sense of disappointment—not doing enough to reverse the recession, producing a complicated and confusing healthcare reform, not doing enough to rein in Wall Street excesses, and so on. But among these disappointed Democrats, a few really angry persons vented their feelings, including two who claimed they were going to write in another name at the top of the ballot, instead of Obama. (At the end of the day, in the tally, I discovered we had two write-ins for President: Hilary Clinton and Mickey Mouse.)
Not long ago I read parts of a new book by two Harvard political scientists, Theda Skocpol and Vannessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. While they focus on Republicans, the authors suggest a few points I regard as illuminating our present condition.
The Tea Party people are largely older, white, economically comfortable and reasonably well-educated—not really different in that respect from the bulk of the Democratic constituency in my ward and precinct. And “my” constituents are conservative in a generic sense. They favor and value the major existing government programs: social security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits. These are programs whose benefits they feel they earned. But apparent to me, among my constituents, there remains a suspicion that the poor, the immigrant minorities and today’s youth are freeloading. This plays into a fear of a great cultural shift in the America they know, symbolized by Obama’s origins—white mother, black African father, early education in exotic Indonesia.
My feeling is that the Tea Party Republicans are at the extreme end of a generational divide, which in part accounts for Obama’s difficulties with his own people. (Let’s face it, yes, there are some people who still cannot accept a black person as President of the USA…and while I believe most of them support Republicans these days, there are probably some in the Democratic fold as well. Just contemplate the farce over Obama’s birth certificate.) I think that my Democratic neighbors are not only disappointed that Obama has been stymied on so many fronts, but they have been influenced by the steady drumbeat of Republican criticism: “socialist” policies, “government take-over” of health insurance, “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. (Republican slogans are so much more evocative than the Democratic ones: witness “death panels.”)
So what accounts for the anger of a few previous supporters? Their world is slipping away. They worry that their benefits will become more costly, will become more complicated to draw upon, and that unfamiliar types of people are taking charge of things. So the major question becomes: how can we get the point where we debate policies clearly and simply instead of parrying slogans? Has our electoral process become totally unmoored from rational debate?