Last night, I attended Claire McCaskill’s kiss-and-makeup-by-proxy session with some individuals from the Missouri Chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP),  an astroturf organization that has opposed tobacco and clean air regulation among other progressive initiatives, and is now targeting health care reform.  This meeting with a McCaskill staffer, a very gracious gesture on McCaskill’s part, was scheduled after the belligerent  AFP protesters frightened her St. Louis office staff, prompting them to lock the office doors and call the police, giving rise to AFP tantrums over their putative mistreatment (these folks don’t miss a trick).  

As Hotflash has already noted (backing her claims up with video), there was lots of boisterous behavior in evidence at last night’s meeting. Lots of “boos” and clapping when the invective reached the level of shrillness folks seemed happiest with.  But there was a lot more going on as well.  The ratio of anger to ideas was high, but the underlying concern was real and honest. Most of these people want to do right, and they want their government to do right.   They aren’t necessarily fools, but they have been fooled — and how that has happened is the story that interests me  

One of first things I noticed was a tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I want you to help stop tyranny.”  This piece of mock-heroism effectively set the stage for me.  I knew I was going to hear from the holy warriors, jihadists against the black helicopters, those individuals who need to define themselves in opposition to some threat, most often personified as big government. This is not a new phenomena; in a classic essay from the 1950s, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter, speaking of the movement spawned by Barry Goldwater, observed:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

And indeed, it was clear that many people at this meeting were angry because they are suspicious of change, fearful of forces that seem beyond their control.  What was also clear, given the buzz-words and the arguments that were on display, is that the opponents of health-care have very effectively tailored their arguments to take advantage of the paranoid zeitgeist that pervades the tea party contingent.

Over the next few days, I will be putting up individual posts on some of the between-the-lines stories that really struck me last night. I want to understand how patently manufactured arguments with little real substance can bring nearly 200-300 citizens out, in some cases from long distances.  What was so compelling? All they did was spend a couple of hours bombarding an impeccable, polite, and  utterly noncommittal staff person with all their grievances against the big government that is now threatening them with sane and rational health care.

Of course the real question is what does this flurry mean about the state of discourse in the U.S.?  And how can we make our narrative the most telling in the face of the noise and the fury that this tiny minority, boiling with all their inchoate rage, is able to generate?