The 9/12 Conversation

Democrats: ignore the 9/12 demonstrators at your peril. I spent a little bit of time in downtown Washington this Saturday, admittedly for the less wholesome purpose of visiting the International Spy Museum with a friend. But there were plenty of 9/12ers around, and I fell into conversation with a number of them. Those conversations, combined with an appraisal of the news coverage and blog write-ups of the event itself, suggest to me that the protests, the protesters, their anxiety, and the potential they have to influence the 2010 elections ought to be taken seriously.  Forget the numbers. The U.S. Park Police has stopped giving estimates for events on its territory, and that's probably a smart PR move on their behalf. The D.C. Fire Department estimated a crowd of about 70,000; some Democrats who attended thought it seemed larger. Whatever the number, it was big enough. People who are predisposed to dismiss these protests as racist found, natch, a number of people bearing Confederate flags and holding some racist signs. A somewhat larger contingent sported placards against the "czars."  The plurality of people  held signs like, "I'm not Astroturf."  In short, there was a mix of people. Plenty of cranks, but plenty of people who seemed angry for reasons once cannot dismiss as irrelevant.

Many of the people I talked to didn't seem to be Ron Paul supporters, or Lyndon LaRouche fans, and a few hadn't heard of Glen Beck.  The biggest source of their complaint was not about Obama, or the presidency -- it was about the Congress, and about bank bailouts, and CEO bonuses. When I pointed out that virtually every trend that they were protesting began in the Bush administration, I was met with eye rolls -- they know this. But Democrats are in power, and the Democrats are the ones who are going to get blamed.

Logically, there is no way I can assess the collective motivations of 70,000 people in Washington, or the tens of thousands of people who showed up at other events across the country. And, in truth,  I confess to having an inner Maureen Dowd voice -- and not the snarky part of that voice -- but the voice that tells me that these protests are  proximately motivated by policy concerns. Ultimately, this voice tells me, they're motivated by tremendous anxiety about the direction of history, and how it seems to be moving away from them -- white, traditional, bounded -- and toward something else -- global, multicolored, unbounded, experimental. This is the Silent Majority, the neo-Bircherite majority, the reactionary id that resents affirmative action, ethnic integration and gays -- the impulse that links government spending with help for poor black people.  Direct racial animus against Barack Obama is not something that anyone ought to dismiss, as one look at racial aversion from 2008 shows.   And Joe Wilson, like many South Carolina politicians before him, isn't a pure soul when it comes to race. Maybe Dowd's conjecture that he looked at Obama, a black "boy," and couldn't stand the sight.  To me, Wilson seemed more motivated by an animus against illegal immigrants; it's not hard to see him shouting "You Lie" if Hillary Clinton made the same statement, especially in the wake of Democrats moving quickly to tighten up legislative loopholes that validated Wilson's position.

It's useful for Democrats dismiss these protesters as racist, or as being motivated primarily by an inchoate anxiety against Barack Obama -- it makes all the more easy to ignore their concerns and assume that they're going to vote against the Democrats anyway in 2010. It's just as easy to blame the media for magnifying their voices, or for falling victim to the wiles of astroturfing groups. This is sort of true -- the media likes to find the loudest and most outrageous voices and vice versa, and astroturfing helped seed attendance at some of the early health care town hall meetings -- but it does not explain (or explain away) the enthusiasm that the Republican and conservative half of the country feels about the necessity to be heard.  It's not their anxiety about the identity and motivations of Barack Obama -- which, sorry to my friends on the right, really does seem to be pervasive -- it's their enthusiasm about that anxiety -- that, for Democrats, ought to be worrisome.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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