The New York Times' Ross Douthat argues, uncontroversially, that the tea-party protests, townhall outbursts and related appendages aren't about specific health care proposals but, instead, are motivated by a more generalized anger over what is happening in Washington:
At the same time, [the health care protests have] become the vessel for a year's worth of anxieties about bailouts, deficits and Beltway incompetence.
This August's town-hall fury wasn't just about the details of health care. Neither were the anti-Obama protests that crowded Washington over the weekend. They were about the Wall Street bailout, the G.M. takeover, the A.I.G. bonuses, and countless smaller examples of middle-income Americans' "playing by the rules," as [GOP pollster Frank] Luntz puts it, "and having someone else benefit."
Notably, Douthat never specifies the identity of this so-called "someone else" who, as a result of government behavior, is unfairly benefiting from the hard work of middle-class Americans, but he gives a clue when he compares current anger over the health care bill to the anger over the 1994 crime bill, which he argues drove Democrats out of, and Newt Gingrich into, Beltway power:
Instead, the crime bill became a lightning rod for populist outrage. The price tag made it seem fiscally irresponsible. (Back then, $30 billion was real money.) The billions it lavished on crime prevention -- like the infamous funding of "midnight basketball" -- looked liked ineffective welfare spending. The gun-control provisions felt like liberalism-as-usual.
"Every day that the Republicans delayed the bill," Luntz remembers, "the public learned more about it -- and the more they learned, the angrier they got."
In other words, the 1994 fury over the crime bill was driven by the belief that the Clinton-led federal government would steal money from middle-class Americans and give it to "midnight basketball" programs, i.e., "welfare" recipients. The racial and class-war components of that fear-mongering campaign were manifest: Bill Clinton wanted to steal the money of "'middle-income Americans playing by the rules" and transfer it to the inner-city (see Ta-Nehisi Coates' examination of the racial, class and similar cultural appeals that fueled vitriolic right-wing attacks on Clinton).
In that sense, Douthat (and Luntz) are correct when they say: "That's exactly what's been happening now." Just as was true for the 1994 crime bill, the right-wing fury over health care reform is motivated by the fear that middle-class Americans will have their money taken away by Obama while -- all together now, euphemistically -- "having someone else benefit." And this "someone else" are, as always, the poor minorities and other undeserving deadbeats who, in right-wing lore, somehow (despite their sorry state) exert immensely powerful influence over the U.S. Government and are thus the beneficiaries of endless, undeserved largesse: people too lazy to work, illegal immigrants, those living below the poverty line. That's why Joe Wilson's outburst resonated so forcefully among the Right and why he became an immediate folk hero: he was voicing the core right-wing fear that their money was being stolen from them by Obama in order to lavish the Undeserving and the Others -- in this case illegal immigrants -- with ill-gotten gains ("having someone else benefit," as Douthat/Luntz put it).
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This is the paradox of the tea-party movement and other right-wing protests fueled by genuine citizen anger and fear. It is true that the federal government embraces redistributive policies and that middle-class income is seized in order that "someone else benefits." But so obviously, that "someone else" who is benefiting is not the poor and lower classes -- who continue to get poorer as the numbers living below the poverty line expand and the rich-poor gap grows in the U.S. to unprecedented proportions. The "someone else" that is benefiting from Washington policies are -- as usual -- the super-rich, the tiny number of huge corporations which literally own and control the Government. The premise of these citizen protests is not wrong: Washington politicians are in thrall to special interests and are, in essence, corruptly stealing the country's economic security in order to provide increasing benefits to a small and undeserving minority. But the "minority" here isn't what Fox News means by that term, but is the tiny sliver of corporate power which literally writes our laws and, in every case, ends up benefiting.
It wasn't the poor or illegal immigrants who were the beneficiaries of the Wall St. bailout; it was the investment banks which, not even a year later, are wallowing in record profits and bonuses thanks to massive taxpayer-funded welfare. The endlessly expanding (and secret) balance sheet of the Federal Reserve isn't going to fund midnight basketball programs or health care for Mexican immigrants but is enabling extreme profiteering by the very people who, just a year ago, almost brought the global economic system to full-scale collapse. Our endless wars and always-expanding Surveillance State -- fueled by constant fear-mongering campaigns against the Latest Scary Enemy -- keep the National Security corporations drowning in profits, paid for by middle-class taxes. And even health-care reform -- which supposedly began with anger over extreme insurance company profiteering at the expense of people's health -- will be an enormous boon to that same industry, as tens of millions of people are forced by the Government to become their customers with the central mechanism to control costs (the public option) blocked by that same industry. That's why those industries are enthusiastically in favor of reform: because, as always, they will benefit massively from it.
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This is what is so strange and remarkable about these tea-party protests. The people who win when government acts aren't the poor, minorities or illegal immigrants -- the prime targets of these protesters' resentment. Their plight only worsens by the day. In Washington, members of those groups are even more powerless than "middle-income Americans." That's so obvious. The people who win whenever the federal government expands its power are the ones who, through their massive resources and lobbyists armies, control what the government does: the richest and most powerful corporations. And yet -- in an extreme paradox -- those are the people who are venerated by the Right: they simultaneously spew rage at what's happening in Washington while revering and defending the interests of the oligarchs who are most responsible.
What's really happening with these protests is that the genuine rage and not unreasonable economic insecurity of these citizens is being stoked, exploited, distorted and manipulated by movement leaders for entirely different ends. The people who are leading them -- Rush Limbaugh, the Murdoch-owned Fox News, Glenn Beck, business-dominated organizations of the type led by Dick Armey -- are cultural warriors above everything else. They're all in a far different socioeconomic position than the "middle-income Americans" whose anger they're ostensibly representing. Their principal preoccupation is their cultural contempt for various groups (illegal immigrants, the "undeserving" poor, liberals) and their desire to preserve the status quo whereby the prime beneficiaries of government policies remain themselves: the super rich and the interests that control Washington. It's certainly true that many of these protesters are driven by the standard right-wing cultural issues which have long shaped that movement -- social issues, religious fears, cultural and racial divisions, and hatred for "liberals" as Communist-Muslim-Terrorist-lovers. For many, all of that is intensified by the humiliation of being completely thrown out of power, at the hands of the first black President. But much of it is fueled by the pillaging of the corporations and Wall St. interests which own their government.
That's what accounts for the gaping paradox of these protests movements: genuine anger (over the core corruption of Washington and the eroding economic security for virtually everyone other than a tiny minority) is being bizarrely directed at those who never benefit (the poorest and most downtrodden), while those who are most responsible (the wealthiest and largest corporations) are depicted as the victims who need defending (they want to seize Wall St. bonuses and soak the rich!!). Several months ago, Matt Taibbi perfectly described the bizarre contradiction driving these protests:
After all, the reason the winger crowd can't find a way to be coherently angry right now is because this country has no healthy avenues for genuine populist outrage. It never has. The setup always goes the other way: when the excesses of business interests and their political proteges in Washington leave the regular guy broke and screwed, the response is always for the lower and middle classes to split down the middle and find reasons to get pissed off not at their greedy bosses but at each other. That's why even people like [Glenn] Beck's audience, who I'd wager are mostly lower-income people, can't imagine themselves protesting against the Wall Street barons who in actuality are the ones who fucked them over. . . .
Actual rich people can't ever be the target. It's a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master's carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields. You know you're a peasant when you worship the very people who are right now, this minute, conning you and taking your shit. Whatever the master does, you're on board. When you get frisky, he sticks a big cross in the middle of your village, and you spend the rest of your life praying to it with big googly eyes. Or he puts out newspapers full of innuendo about this or that faraway group and you immediately salute and rush off to join the hate squad. A good peasant is loyal, simpleminded, and full of misdirected anger. And that's what we've got now, a lot of misdirected anger searching around for a non-target to mis-punish . . . can't be mad at AIG, can't be mad at Citi or Goldman Sachs. The real villains have to be the anti-AIG protesters! After all, those people earned those bonuses! If ever there was a textbook case of peasant thinking, it's struggling middle-class Americans burned up in defense of taxpayer-funded bonuses to millionaires. It's really weird stuff.
A significant reason this has happened is that the Democratic Party has largely ridden to power based on its servitude to these corporate interests -- chief party-fundraiser Chuck Schumer is the Senator from Wall St. and the Blue Dogs are little more than corporate-owned subsidiaries -- and thus can't possibly pretend to be opponents of the status quo. They can't and don't want to tap into any populist anger because they're every bit as supportive of, servants to, the corporate agenda as the GOP establishment is. K Street support is what sustains their power. Super-rich corporations aren't benefiting from a free market, laissez faire approach. They're benefiting from the opposite: a constant merging of government and corporate power whereby the latter exploits the former for its own benefit. The right-wing theme that an expansion of federal government power means a contraction in corporate freedom is completely obsolete: government power is the means by which large corporations benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.
Both parties -- but particularly the one in power at any given moment -- perpetuate that system because they benefit from it. That's what has left the gaping void into which Fox News, Glenn Beck, Limbaugh and the like have stepped: absurdly parading around as populist leaders while supporting policies designed to further crush the interests of the people who they are leading.
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In a rational world, there ought to be citizen rage towards the government that transcends -- indeed, that has little to do with -- divisions between the so-called "Right" and "Left." One saw the incipient emergence of that sort of citizen anger during the rage over the Wall St. bailouts and AIG bonuses, where the divisions were defined not as "conservatives v. liberals" but as "outsiders" (citizens of all ideologies who were enraged by such blatant corruption and stealing) v. "insiders" (who defended it all as necessary and scorned the irresponsible dirty masses who were protesting). The real power dynamic in this country has little to do with the cable-generated "right v. left" drama and much more to do with "outsider/insider" divisions, since the same corporate interests control the Government regardless of which political party wins.
But these protests end up expressing themselves in dichotomies that are largely besides the point -- "right v. left" or "Democratic v. GOP" -- because that's how their leaders define it. These protests, at their leadership level, are little more than Fox-News-generated events. That is notable in itself: it's extremely unusual (if not unprecedented) for a political movement in the U.S. to be led and galvanized by a "news" media outlet; that's usually something that happens elsewhere ("opposition television or radio stations" sponsoring street protests in Italy, Venezuela, Rwanda). Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are part of the class that has long controlled and benefited from Washington, and thus promote a view of the world based in the Douthat/Luntz "having someone else benefit": the Democrats are socialists coming to steal your money and give it to the poor, the minorities and the immigrants. As a result, citizen rage is directed towards everyone except those who are actually responsible for their plight.
If Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh were truly opposed to expanded government power, where were they when George Bush and Dick Cheney were expanding federal power in virtually every realm, driving up the national debt to unprecedented proportions, destroying middle-class economic security in order to benefit the wealthiest, and generally ensuring government intrusion into every aspect of people's lives? They were supporting it and cheering it on. That's what gives the lie to their pretense of "small-government" rhetoric. These citizen protests have a core of truth and validity to them -- it would be bizarre if citizens weren't enraged by what is taking place -- but that is all being misdirected and exploited for ends that have nothing to do with the interests (or even their claimed beliefs) of the protesters themselves.