I spent some time yesterday talking on Canadian radio, explaining health-care reform to our neighbors to the north. They were a bit puzzled at what's been going on down here. Why, they wanted to know, was there all that talk about "socialism" when the reform left in place the private insurance system? And why were people so angry? I found it a little hard to explain without going into an hour-long history of right-wing populism in America.
It's true that over time, the bill lost support. Mitch McConnell believes that's because of the united front he and his colleagues displayed, and he's right -- one of the things that happens in public debate is that voters pick up cues from elites about where they're supposed to stand, and one message repeated over and over was that every single Republican is opposed to this, so if you're a Republican voter, you ought to be opposed to it, too. That alone will get you to about 40 percent opposition.
But something else happened: over time, the small group of Tea Party activists got angrier and angrier, and more and more threatening. It culminated with the thuggery we saw on Sunday, with members of Congress being spat on and called "nigger" and "faggot." What we need to be aware of is how many elected officials during this whole process have been validating the worst of this behavior. It's been happening all along, from Texas Governor Rick Perry threatening secession, to Rep. Michelle Bachman telling people not to fill out their census forms because it might be a nefarious government plot. Over and over again, when we've seen the most hateful venom being spewed by ordinary people, there's been an elected official right behind them, egging them on.
And on Sunday, Rep. Steve King of Iowa went outside the Capitol with a bullhorn and told the protesters, "Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s take them out! Let’s chase them down! There’s going to be a reckoning!" You probably didn't hear about that one, because reporters were more interested in the buffoonish birther congressman from Texas who shouted "Baby-killer!" on the floor of the House. But it's gotten to the point where when one of the people who make our laws tells a group of already frenzied protesters that they should "beat that other side to a pulp," it's barely worthy of notice.
You don't have to be a polite Canadian to find this stuff appalling. It's possible all this bubbling rage and hate will just peter out, particularly now that this legislation has finally passed. But it's also possible that these people will get angrier and angrier. After all, so much of that rage comes from a feeling of powerlessness; when you see someone wielding a sign reading, "Listen to me!!!" what's behind it is the desire not to be impotent. And nothing makes you feel more impotent than losing.
We expect that though elected officials may be liars and demagogues, there are some lines -- like incitement to violence -- they'll be responsible enough to steer clear of. But I guess not.
-- Paul Waldman
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