Town hall anger: Why we rage at our politicians
One day after enduring tirades from constituents in a town-hall meeting that erupted in vein-splitting anger directed at him, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- who just switched parties from Republican to Democrat in a state that can turn blue-to-red on a dime -- talked about the experience.
"It's more than healthcare," Specter said on CBS' "The Early Show." "I think there is a mood in America of anger with so many people unemployed, with so much bickering in Washington ... with the fear of losing their healthcare. It all boils over."
The Washington Post's Dan Balz agreed, calling the furor over healthcare reform "a proxy for an even larger fear" that the federal government is taking over the private-sector economy.
Some Democrats -- like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- accuse right-wing organizations of stirring up Tea Party activists with instructions to disrupt rather than debate, calling it "un-American." Texas Democrat Lloyd Doggett, who was peppered with angry questions last week, agrees. "This notion of a grass-roots campaign is totally and completely phony," he said. "The Republican Party has coordinated this apparent outrage and stirred it up."
But Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill said it was "a huge mistake" for Democrats to call the protests "manufactured." True, she said, "both sides are organizing, but that's what we do in a democracy."
And the organizers insist they only tapped a vein of genuine anger.
"Those inside the Beltway need to know that you can't fake this sort of outrage outside the Beltway," said Max Papas of Freedom Works, one of the groups fanning the protests. "It only happens when they are very concerned about what is going on inside of Washington, and it's a clear sign that people are very concerned."
Whatever the reason, the town-hall meetings around the country on President Obama's healthcare reform are offering a vivid display of rage.
In Georgia, moderate Democrat David Scott, an African American representing a majority-white district near Atlanta, had a contentious community meeting on healthcare recently. Tuesday, someone marked up a sign directing constituents to his office, defacing it with a swastika.
"We have got to make sure that the symbol of the swastika does not win, that the racial hatred that's bubbling up does not win this debate," Scott said. "There's so much hatred out there for President Obama."
As for McCaskill, at a town hall on Tuesday, voters shouted, frothed and stomped their feet at the centrist politician who is known as a common-sense moderate. At one point, constituents shouted down her explanations so completely that the senator asked if they wanted her to just go home.
"I don't understand this rudeness," McCaskill said. "I honestly don't get it." Later, when a man shouted over another person's question, the senator said, "This can't be about who's the loudest."
With 20 more town halls scheduled for today, the protests are likely to continue. And maybe that's just the pull of the American tradition of dissent, the right to disagree with your political leaders without fear of retribution.
As Mary Ann Fieser of Hillsboro, Mo., who attended the McCaskill town hall, explained, "If they don't let us vent our frustrations out, they will have a revolution."
-- Johanna Neuman
Photo: John Bazemore / Associated Press