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.
And even if this is true -- even if the first black president + the Democratic majority + undeniably progressive (but not socialistic) policies is producing a backlash -- well, then, describing what animates these protesters is useful from the perspective of sociology, but it does not explain why the "other" side -- the majority that elected Barack Obama -- has gone silent, or, if not silent, isn't nearly as potent as they were just ten months ago. There is plenty of polarization, but on the left, it seems to be largely contained to the elites -- MSNBC, the top liberal intellectuals and bloggers -- where, on the right, and on the "z" axis (the Ron Paulites, the LaRouchies), it runs much deeper.
The point is that the enthusiasm gap reflects something more than the architecture of politics -- the way the media covers them, the way the left reads into their motivations -- and these folks are going to vote in critical congressional districts in 2010. It would seem that many of the voters that Democrats relied upon in 2008 are not. And it does not seem that the Obama coalition itself becomes active when they're informed that the opposition is a bunch of reactionaries. That means that the Democratic coalition in Congress is going to shrink. And it might shrink by more than the 20 or so blue dog Democrats who're going to wind up voting against two of the three major Democratic initiatives: the stimulus package, cap-n-trade-and health care.
In general, these conservative voters are unpersuadable by the arguments available to Democrats; they're operating from a much more potent gut reaction that then emotion of reason, which tends to be less passionately expressed. And so it doesn't work to point out that many of Obama's health care principles are conservative in nature ( a la the exchange), or that the government has done next to nothing to re-regulate the financial markets (which might, actually, be part of the problem.) If they want to staunch their losses, Democratic strategists will have to come up with counter-measures and the White House has to figure out a way to rally independents (the health care speech seemed to be a start -- and the passage of health care might help a lot, both in terms of re-energizing Democrats and pacifying independents -- we will see.) It will be interesting to see which Democrats take these rallies seriously, and which Democrats counsel a strategy that ignores them or reduces them to fringe.