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Posted by on Aug 6, 2009 in Economy, Health, Politics, Society | 30 comments

Old and Angry: The Politics of Crisis

The latest CNN poll confirms what most of the town hall videos show: the angry demonstrators against Democratic health reform plans are, for the most part, far older than 50. Those older than 50 tend to oppose Democratic health care reform and those under 50 tend to support it. Forget for a moment whether or not these protests are truly organic or astroturf, the one demographic standout is age. (UPDATE: Per Da Goat’s comment, I don’t believe 50 is elderly! The protesters look more like over 65. But the CNN data only captured a cutoff at 50.) There are obviously some exceptions here but the visuals are quite striking.

Why do elderly voters oppose health care reform and younger voters support it?

Matthew Yglesias argues that this just jibes with the 2008 election results. Younger voters liked Obama from the start – and still do. Older voters disliked Obama from the start – and still do. This may be a factor of partisan ID, cultural issues, comfort with a black President, etc. Either way, there is nothing much to conclude here other than to say that those who generally like Obama also support his health reform efforts. Those who don’t like Obama dislike his health reform proposals.

What matters most for Yglesias is the state of the economy, which more than anything else has dragged Obama’s approval numbers down. If the economy turned around, his overall numbers would go up and, consequently, the opposition to his health care reforms among the elderly would soften.

Another take on this is that elderly voters already get their government health care through Medicare and worry that efforts to expand coverage to the non-elderly will weaken Medicare. Because of these concerns, Steve Benens claims that the elderly are especially vulnerable to transparently false attacks e.g. forced euthanasia, etc. Moreover, since the non-elderly have moved away from the GOP, the only way for the Republican Party to gain any traction for 2010 is to organize heavily among the elderly.

Then there is the question of timing. These town hall meetings are mostly held during the work day when retirees have a chance to attend.

My sense is that a combination of these factors are at work. Despite all the quasi-racial complaints that “my America has disappeared” this is not so much about elderly people turning to the right as getting scared.

Not to sound like Glenn Beck too much, but America really is at a precarious moment. These are big issues that we are trying to grapple with and they affect people personally. Americans SHOULD be passionately engaged on this issue. Should America continue along the path of private health insurance, knowing that health care costs eat up an increasing proportion of the economy (and wages) and that tens of millions have no coverage other than the emergency room? If not, will the quality and availability of health care radically deteriorate under a public option plan that gradually morphs into a single payer system? Nobody can honestly say they know the answer to these questions.

All I know is that people can and will have to fight over this. The 2006 and 2008 elections were, to a significant extent, part of that fight. But so are the protesters today – whether they be Tea Party activists or concerned, older voters worried about their Medicare.

And, yes, these confrontations will likely turn violent at times. In Tampa, they already did. Expect more of that as both sides – grassroots and astroturf – dig in.

In fact, we often forget just how much violence accompanied major social change in American history. With all the other issues at hand – a collapsed financial system, a crippled manufacturing sector, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spiraling national debt, and, yes, a health care crisis, people are going to fight for what they think is right.

Charges and counter-charges of astroturfing are besides the point. The issue at hand with these town halls; the reason we are talking about them this way is that opponents of reform have taken a new level of militancy to this issue. They’ve hung Congressmen in effigy, phoned in death threats, shouted down Congressmen and questioners without waiting for answers, painted pictures of Obama as Hitler. These aren’t pointed questions. They are statements of anger and protest, similar to Code Pink outbursts.

And so now the supporters of reform – grassroots liberals as well as astroturf pro-health reform groups – are fighting back against these protesters – sometimes with heavy-handed tactics.

The most important question – will this change any Congressperson’s mind – seems lost in this exchange. Nobody is likely to be swayed by a mob. But do these mobs represent a beleaguered and desperate right wing minority in its last throes? Or do they signify a large-scale backlash among the majority of the population. The polling is mixed on this; majorities still support the most controversial element – the public option. Yet, the public is still very confused about the consequences of the overall package, and Obama has done little to clear up concerns.

In the end, I suspect that these town hall confrontations will serve more as performances of national frustration than they will exchanges on health care reform itself. With unemployment approaching 10% tensions are boiling. People who claimed that they’d give the Obama Administration time to let the stimulus run its course are not so patient when their own jobs have been eliminated. And when you add the birther fringe on top you get a more toxic brew.

Perhaps the country needs this as catharsis. Self-righteous appeals to civility are probably pointless. In September, Congress will almost certainly pass a significant bill, Obama will sign it, and the tea partiers will jump on to another sign of the Apocalypse. The real question will be – as it has been from the start – the economy. If the employment picture really improves by the middle of 2010, Obama and the Democrats will look heroic for standing up to the right-wingers. If the economy is still stumbling, expect this episodic rage to turn into a more significant electoral challenge for Democrats in November 2010.

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