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Opinion: Extreme Agitation 

Poli Psy

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Vermont may be having a cooler-than-usual summer, but everywhere else America’s temperature is rising.

In Las Vegas and Washington, teenagers are beating up homeless people for the thrill of it.

On the greens, golfers are swinging their clubs at perpetrators of “slow play.”

G.I. Joe, featuring nonstop futuristic military mayhem, was last weekend’s biggest-grossing movie.

And at town hall meetings across the nation, opponents of health care reform are shouting and shoving and burning their representatives in effigy.

The protesters say they represent a vast popular rage against a liberal plot to turn America into a totalitarian state. “This is truly a drive to put the population under complete government control,” comments one typical blog reader about “Obamacare.” “They will decide who lives and who dies. God help you if you didn’t vote for this marxist SOB. If his brown shirts have the opportunity they’ll eliminate you.”

The Dems counter that the anti-reformers are not a grassroots movement at all, but a media show funded by Big Pharma and orchestrated by national pro-business, antitax groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, whose other worthy causes include, respectively, defeat of the beverage tax and defense of the tobacco industry against antismoking legislation.

Indeed, the disgruntlement is not as widespread as Fox News would have you believe. Among respondents to a recent Time poll, for instance, 63 percent “would support providing health care coverage for all Americans, even if the government had to subsidize those who could not afford it.” Fifty-five percent wanted a public option, and to pay for the plan, 57 percent were fine with raising taxes on people earning more than $280,000 a year.

But American public opinion is fickle, and the poll was conducted in the last week of July, before the media started covering the enragés 24/7. Facts about the reform are unlikely to quell the storm either, as Obama keeps insisting they will. In meeting after meeting, jeers meet representatives’ reassurances that Washington will not (alas) establish a single-payer system. These are the same folks who deplore motorcycle helmet laws and public schooling. They don’t like the gu’ment, and they wouldn’t trust a politician to mow their lawn.

In fact, the protests are both an Astroturf campaign financed by the insurance and medical industry lobbies and the pained cry of a native movement flung from the center of power to its margins, like Sarah Palin packed onto a helicopter to Alaska. As in all modern American politics, the passions are organic and media-pumped, authentic and manufactured — and there’s no bright line between the two.

I’ve been watching these people on YouTube and reading their fulminations in the blogosphere and, as anyone can see, there’s anger here, all right. But angry may be the wrong word for how the protesters are behaving. Rather, they are apoplectic. Piqued. Irritated. Agitated. Theirs is agitation as the progressive organizer Saul Alinsky conceived it: both a public emotion and a political tactic that involves ratcheting up the ressentiment of the protesters, empowering them to confront the powerful — the politician or CEO. The idea, wrote Alinsky, is to “rub raw the sores of discontent,” then deploy it.

FreedomWorks has adopted Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals as its training manual. But there’s a pesky difference: He was siding with disenfranchised poor people and workers, whereas the organization stands up for rich taxpayers and corporations. How to turn the victor into a victim? You can simply keep asserting your victimhood, like Rush Limbaugh at the height of the Bush years griping about left-wing domination of the media and politics. Or you can find another oppressor. Many of the anti-reformers are happy with their health insurance; they just don’t want to pay taxes to extend the privilege. Since helping the less fortunate might broadly be viewed as a public good, taxes themselves, in any amount, must be figured as a “burden,” indeed, a tyranny.

Still, for others in the tea party movement, its ideology appears to fight personal need and desire — to pit “freedom” against the ability to take a sick kid to the doctor without going bankrupt. How do you get an unemployed guy, like the one recently interviewed on National Public Radio, to oppose government-funded job creation? How do you persuade an uninsured person such as Ken Gladney — the St. Louis resident who took up a collection to pay his medical bill after an alleged beating by union “thugs” — to despise affordable health care?

For these people, too, the solution must look worse than their problem. Confusing claims and conspiracy theories are circulated: Medicaid might be taken over by the government! A congressional panel will euthanize medically expensive senior citizens! To perpetuate the paranoia, protesters disrupt public events rather than engage in public conversation. In town hall meetings, they are asking questions larded with misinformation, then cutting the speaker off before he or she has a chance to respond. Such an exchange guarantees that the interrogator — and, not incidentally, the audience — learns nothing, certainly nothing to assuage the alarm the question has engendered. Learning nothing, everyone also gets nothing: no possibility of hope, no idea to realize creatively, no goal to work toward.

And the activists husband their useful frustration.

As any barroom denizen or battered spouse will tell you, the combination of cultivated grievance and foiled conversation is a volatile one. It’s a mood that can move a golfer to raise his nine-iron or a bunch of boys to search out a park dweller to stab. And it can set fists flying at the school gym. But when violence erupts, the movement’s spokespeople can claim perfectly plausible deniability. Hitting your neighbor or sending a death threat to your representative is deplorable, of course! But you can’t blame these people. They’re frustrated!

It’s all classic right-wing organizing: hysteria as discourse; temper tantrum as social movement. And, contrary to the Democrats’ naïve hopes, it works. It works because opponents of almost anything are more passionate than proponents, even — especially — when the proponents outnumber their foes. Securely in the majority, observing the dicey tactics of the other side, the proponents step back, unwilling to risk reputation or safety to defend a cause they think will win without them. In their absence, the loud, aggressive minority has its way (often with the help of corporations hiding quietly behind their foundations). And that’s how you end up with the Defense of Marriage Act — or a chaotic, costly and crappy health care system.

But a strategy of fomented frustration also has its weakness: You get frustration and risk burnout. Bitterness is a brittle motivator; an army that marches on its spleen may not have the wherewithal to stick out the battle to the end.

What is the end? That’s another glitch in the strategy. Unlike other conservative oppositional politics, the anti of health care reform has no clear pro. Antiabortion activists are pro-life; they really want to save fetuses. Anti-gay-marriage forces really believe in the superiority of heterosexuality. What right-wing libertarians want, in a sense, is nothing: no government. But nothing is a hard desire to sustain.

In health care, moreover, getting nothing means keeping what you already have: the “free” insurance market. A demonstrator in a photo posted to the Huffington Post held up a placard reading, “No Health Care!” No health care would be an insurer’s dream come true. What profits would pile up if only they could eliminate those costly doctors’ visits!

But might the placard wavers wake up some morning with no health care and realize they want it?

Supporters of reform cannot sit around waiting for the tea partiers to go soft steeping in their own frustration. We have our own frustrated millions to mobilize: Americans so fed up with commercial medicine that they’re willing to pay taxes to care for everyone.

But frustration is only a catalyst. In the end, patience — what my partner, a former legislator, calls “staying in the room” — may be the virtue that wins the day. Congress has had about four months to sort out one of the most vexing policy problems confronting the U.S. The Obama administration’s exhortation to hurry up and “get it done” — and Congress’ own mantra that if the legislators don’t succeed this fall, they will fail — is self-defeating and self-fulfilling. What if they don’t finish by Thanksgiving? Should they move on to something more pressing, like a federal Driving While Distracted felony statute?

The opponents are counting on Americans’ low tolerance for frustration — and representatives’ terror of the two-year election cycle — to defeat health care reform. But in government as in life, things worth doing usually take longer than expected. Citizens need to speak their impatience with a government that has done not too much but too little, then patiently hold elected officials to getting the right thing done.

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About The Author

Judith Levine

Judith Levine

Bio:
Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.

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