By Jim Malone
17 August 2009
The ongoing national debate over health care reform in the United States has given way to angry and at times chaotic displays of emotion at town hall meetings sponsored by congressional Democrats. But the anger and fear on display goes beyond concerns about medical care.
|Protesters against President Barack Obama's health care plan cheer at a rally in Grand Junction, Colorado, 15 Aug 2009|
"People want less government. That is what they don't get. We want 'leave us alone,'" said an Iowa town hall participant.
But in many of these meetings, the anger and fear on display suggests concerns far beyond just the health care issue.
"This is about the systematic dismantling of this country. You have awakened a sleeping giant. We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don't want this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country," one Pennsylvania town hall participant said.
Conservatives around the country have seized on the forums as an opportunity to vent about a number of social concerns.
"We didn't stand up and what happened? They took prayer out of the schools and replaced it with drugs. We didn't stand up and we got legalized abortion and they are killing babies. And if we don't stand up now, God help us," said one woman.
Supporters of health care reform have found some of the meetings so chaotic that they have chosen to remain silent.
"I think many of us were a silent majority in a format like this. We want health care reform but we aren't going to get into shouting matches with people," another woman said.
President Obama noted the intense emotions on display during a recent town meeting on health care in Montana.
|President Obama at town hall meeting, 14 Aug. 2009|
"I know there has been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country, especially when tempers flare. TV loves a ruckus," Mr. Obama said.
Some Democrats are hitting back, accusing some of the protestors of trying to undermine democracy.
This is New York Democratic Congressman Jerold Nadler.
"The intent is not to debate the members of Congress. The intent is to make sure that no one can discuss anything. The intent is to shout them down, to prevent intelligent discussion. That, frankly, is anti-democratic and is a fascist tactic and it is just wrong," Nadler said.
Political experts believe the furious national debate over health care has quickly broadened into an argument over how much government involvement there should be in the economy.
David Gergen served as a White House advisor to four presidents and now lectures on public service at Harvard University in Massachusetts.
"It is clear that not only are some of the opponents of health care moved by the health care debate, but they are also really worried about the direction the president is going, how fast he is going, how much government they see, how much deficit-spending they see," Gergen said.
The debate has taken an ugly turn at times. Some protestors carry signs comparing the Obama administration with Nazi Germany, and fringe elements still question whether the president is really a U.S. citizen, despite the fact that he has an official birth cirtificate on file with the state of Hawaii and birth announcements were printed shortly after he was born.
But protesters like this man are unconvinced.
"In summary, the man calling himself Barack Hussein Obama has no real birth certificate issued by the United States," the man said in an Internet video blog.
In addition to these opinions, a civil rights group warns in a new report that anti-government militia groups, some with extreme views, appear to be growing, fueled by a poor economy and racial fears about the first African-American president.
A militia group in Ohio posted a video on the Internet of a man with an altered voice holding a semi-automatic assault rifle.
"Listen, people, things are bad. Things are real bad and it is going to get a lot worse. So basically, you people need to wake up and start buying some of these," said the militia member.
Anti-government militia activity in the U.S. reached a peak in the early 1990s following a clash between law enforcement agencies and an armed religious group in Waco, Texas that left more than 70 people dead.
|Mark Brady waits in line hoping to attend a town hall meeting on health care led by Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in State College, PA, 12 Aug 2009|
"Because these groups see the federal government as the primary enemy, and the government today has a face that is black in the form of President Obama, that has really radicalized portions of the movement. There is a lot more feeling of, you know, this country is being taken away from us by people who don't look like us," Potok said.
Pollster Lee Miringoff with Marist University in New York says the country is sharply divided over the Obama health care reform plan.
But he says the anger and fear on display around the country are symptomatic of deeper concerns about the future of the country.
"People are not feeling especially secure about their own economic lives, about the health care that is available to them. So there is a fear and I think that is what this change is tapping into, a grumpy, worried national audience that is very, very concerned that somehow when their lives are somewhat fragile, things are going to even erode or crack further," said Miringoff.
In the short term, analyst David Gergen believes the outbursts at the town hall meetings have put the Obama administration on the defensive.
"The passion that has come out is, I think, diminishing the prospects, diminishing the chances that the president will succeed. I think they are having some political effect that is negative for the White House," Gergen said.
Experts say the political impact of the town meetings on Congress will be better measured once lawmakers return to Washington next month.