Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Liberal Anger in Action

This week, David Weigel called for liberal organizations to provide an outpouring of disgust and anger over Ryan's Folly, the Republican plan to end Medicare in order to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, similar in scope to the Tea Party organized in the summer in 2009. I was skeptical that the media is capable of portraying the liberal anger against Ryan's Folly in a neutral light, probably defaulting to Republican talking points about 'liberal radicals' to describe citizens asking for basic fairness. Weigel got a little bit of what he asked for as at (ironically named) Daniel Webster's disastrous, angry, no-good, very bad town hall meeting:
Tuesday at the Orange County Agricultural Extension office in Orlando, boos and shouts of "liar" were mixed with angry accusations that Ryan's plan to change Medicare would leave those now younger than 55 without health insurance in their retirement. There also were calls to eliminate the tax cuts first put in place by then-President George W. Bush and to raise corporate taxes rather than cut entitlement programs.
It's a very dismissive portrayal of people upset that their congressman wants to change their Medicare coverage into a yearly check that won't cover the cost of basic health care.

I'd like to say that I'm right, that the anti-anger sentiment is a negative, and the dismissive portrayal of Webster's consituents proves my point. But thinking back to the original 'Summer of Rage,' the coverage started the same. Weigel is probably right; changing the narrative requires taking some bum stories at the front end of the media campaign.

Some serious defects of the liberal organizing efforts are the fact that liberal grassroots groups are old news. The Tea Party garnered media coverage and pundit consternation because it was an unknown. Commentators knit their brows over the lack of coherent set of demands; the tea party received a decent amount of coverage precisely because it was perceived as an organ of existential rage instead of a traditional political movement. Whereas the mystique of the Tea Party brought it coverage, the old-hat nature of liberal grassroots organizing efforts are bringing dismissive yawns from local media:
Webster tried to go over a series of charts showing growing levels of federal spending and debt and the reason he supports the federal budget plan put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. But he was interrupted at every turn by shouts from critics that included members of progressive groups such as Moveon.org and Organize Now.
They're Moveon.org members; not real Americans. They belong to union households; not real Americans. Instead of garnering media attention to the issues, the visible involvement of pre-established liberal groups draws attention away from the broad dissatisfaction with Ryan's Folly.

When the tea party began gathering attention in 2009, it was in the face of a largely complacent progressive movement. They had just captured the White House and gained a good sized majority of the House, and almost enough of the Senate to actually move forward on an agenda. The same mass articulation of anger from liberals would not go shrieking into that same void. Conservatives are still energized by the underdog status that Republicans have in divided government, and will be higly agitated until the end of President Obama's tenure. Anger, if liberals use it, will be met with anger:
Others in the crowd began yelling at Webster's critics to quiet down, at one point with the chant "Let him talk!" But the meeting frequently devolved into multiple arguments — some of them heated — between members of audience.

When Vietnam veteran Ron Parsell yelled that he wanted to know why Webster was cutting Medicare and veterans' benefits, his answer came from the audience instead.

"We can't afford it, you moron!" a red-faced man screamed.
The active involvement of more citizens in a vigorous debate would be good for America, but an ear-splitting argument among partisans, on display at this town hall meeting, doesn't help reach disinterested or moderate voters.

Presdient Obama ran against this partisan rancor in Washington for a few reasons: It's probably not a productive mode of democratic discourse. It's certainly not a legitimate way to govern. It definitely does not poll well. Republicans won the midterm elections by getting their base fired up for a low-turnout election. Democrats actually did pretty well at getting their voters out, but the Republican anger massively motivated the right wing. Presidential elections are not won from the wings; Presidents are reelected by capturing the center without being abandoned by their base. The center is not quite angry, and would much rather see a real discussion about how to keep our economy growing than shouting. If liberals get into shouting matches, there's a chance that both sides of the political spectrum comes off looking like idiots, turning off centrist voters (who would tend towards Obama, considering he's acting like a moderate Republican).

Liberal groups need to ask themselves about their role vis-a-vis the Democratic party and this President. Should they wage a full-throated campaign against Ryan's Folly and risk affiliating the President with anger? Probably, especially because the White House is going to hippie-punch anyway. Are there more useful ways to spend Democratic resources? The answer is less clear. Progressives' engagement is intangible, and may benefit from being tapped early in the cycle, building momentum for the insurgent campaign that the President intends to run.

I'm more convinced by Weigel's argument than I was last week.

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