Behind the Town Halls’ ‘Angry White Men’


Interview with Chip Berlet, Annette Fuentes

New America Media Editor’s Note: Behind the anger visible in recent town hall meetings about health care reform is a surging, right-wing populist movement fearful of the nation’s changing demographics, and anxious about having an African-American CEO in Washington, says Chip Berlet, senior researcher at Political Research Associates, a think tank in Massachusetts. NAM editor Annette Fuentes spoke with him about today’s populism and the Democrats’ failure to communicate on health care. Berlet’s recent report is “Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization & Scapegoating.”

Who are these people screaming and shouting at the town hall meetings?

It’s an AstroTurf campaign to fill people with scare stories and misinformation. Even if these people say, ‘No one told me to come,’ they are getting direct mailings telling them to go to meetings and ask questions. They are angry because they feel displaced. They feel pushed out of the way by liberals, people of color and immigrants. It’s the story they have told themselves to explain why they haven’t made it in America. It’s racial anxiety fueled by a bad economy, a black president and disparities at a time when white people’s supremacy is being challenged.

Now we have a black president, and for the most part whites didn’t riot in the street. But it doesn’t mean that most of us who are white men in America don’t wonder what that means. They see the president as the head of a bureaucracy, and they are unsettled by the idea of having a black boss: How am I supposed to act? What am I supposed to do? Does that mean white people are losing power? The short answer is: Yeah, deal with it.

Your research links today to earlier populist movements in U.S. history. What fuels them?

For over 100 years–more like 150–you’ve had these movements, and they came out of the Civil War. It is a backlash against social liberalism and it’s rooted in libertarian support for unregulated capitalism and white people holding onto power, and, if they see themselves losing it, trying to get it back. They are not the elites, but they aren’t the poorest. They see themselves as producers, they do the work. They see the elites—especially liberal elites—as parasites. They are very anti-intellectual and they have a lot of patriotic fervor.

They are suspicious of elites but they also hate people down below who they think are lazy and shiftless freeloaders. That includes the ‘welfare queens,’ the people who are illegal immigrants, and the community organizers who are organizing these lazy, shiftless people.

Why didn’t these people get angry when former Pres. Bush bailed out Goldman Sachs and AIG with billions in taxpayer money?

They are not inclined to blame Republicans even when Bush bailed out the banks because they see it as something set in motion by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and tax-and-spend Democrats. They have a story in their mind and they see it playing out. What do we see? The economy is collapsing and you have a black man as president.

Most of these people are our neighbors and they are angry at the changing nature of our society and they have nowhere else to go but these meetings to complain. They can reach this elected representative; they have no other access to power but these town meetings. In a democracy, elected officials have to answer questions, and if constituents are angry, their anger is not the problem. It’s good when they demand answers, its bad when they come with misinformation.

Why weren’t the Democrats effective in countering that misinformation or handling the angry mobs?

The Democrats, instead of being prepared, did not take steps to turn out their own base. They didn’t have a coherent plan to give to the average person. It’s appalling how the left has been out-organized by the right on this. Obama has done it right, but a lot of others have done it wrong. They are unprepared for the anger; they let the meetings collapse in chaos.

Obama does what a good community organizer does. You do the three Rs: respect, rebut, rebuke. You treat people respectfully, then you rebut the false information, but you don’t call them stupid or a wing-nut. Then you move on to part three: rebuke the forces that provided the false information. You say, ‘The person who told you that is wrong.’ That leaves the person who leaves with skepticism about information.

How do you stop the growing division and anger behind this populism?

It’s not easy. You have to pick it apart piece by piece. You need people across the political spectrum saying, ‘We need this demonization to stop.’ There are some things we don’t do in civilized society and that includes stampeding people into believing that health care reform will promote euthanasia.

The angry faces at town hall meetings have mostly been white, older faces. Where are the youth?

It’s a young cohort against an aging white cohort. The immigrant population is not just young but disproportionately women. That is a changing demographic that is particularly unsettling. There is a nagging feeling in the back of the minds of white men that they are being displaced, pushed aside by women. When you talk about race, class and gender, they are all entwined. You can’t tease them apart.

On the left side, who has asked youth to step up? Where did you see anyone in the Democratic Party calling on them? You are just starting to see people wake up and say, Wait a minute. Everyone who voted for Obama, it’s time to step up. If people want change, they better get Obama‘s back.