The Town Hall Mob

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August 6, 2009
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krugmanPaulThere’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled
“Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American
town meeting. The painting, part of a series
illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an
ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His
neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but
they’re letting him speak his mind.

That’s a far cry from what has been happening at recent
town halls, where angry protesters – some of them, with
no apparent sense of irony, shouting “This is America!”
– have been drowning out, and in some cases
threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about
health reform.

Some commentators have tried to play down the mob
aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against
health reform to the campaign against Social Security
privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison.
I’ve gone through many news reports from 2005, and
while anti-privatization activists were sometimes
raucous and rude, I can’t find any examples of
congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy,
congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.

And I can’t find any counterpart to the death threats
at least one congressman has received.

So this is something new and ugly. What’s behind it?

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, has
compared the scenes at health care town halls to the
“Brooks Brothers riot” in 2000 – the demonstration that
disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped
send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at
the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were
actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington.

But Mr. Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-
heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town
hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake
grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the
former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new
organization called Conservatives for Patients’ Rights.

The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the
former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital
chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a
fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded
guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal
health plans, paying $1.7 billion – yes, that’s
“billion” – in fines. You can’t make this stuff up.

But while the organizers are as crass as they come, I
haven’t seen any evidence that the people disrupting
those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the
most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry.
The question is, what are they angry about?

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by
Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to
his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form
of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly
all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of
those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised
their hands.

Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a
government program probably aren’t reacting to what
President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe
some of the disinformation opponents of health care
reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama
plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That
particular claim is coming straight from House
Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less
to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve
heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is
probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s
behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s
citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the
birthers and the health care protesters are one and the
same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are
birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a
substantial fraction.

And cynical political operators are exploiting that
anxiety to further the economic interests of their

Does this sound familiar? It should: it’s a strategy
that has played a central role in American politics
ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance
Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of
working-class whites.

Many people hoped that last y
ear’s election would mark
the end of the “angry white voter” era in America.
Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural
and racial fear are a declining share of the

But right now Mr. Obama’s backers seem to lack all
conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his
administration isn’t living up to their dreams of
transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled
with a passionate intensity.

And if Mr. Obama can’t recapture some of the passion of
2008, can’t inspire his supporters to stand up and be
heard, health care reform may well fail.

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