The gun brandishing and outbursts at town hall meetings this summer were like a brain scan of the nation.
It was surprising, for instance, how off-point some parts of the national brain were. Criticism leveled at individuals with weapons, even if porting them was legal, were out of place and inappropriate, but seemed to not phase them at all.
Arms are instruments of threat and coercion; town hall meetings are about information and reason. Guns are not friendly persuasion.
None of the vehement negative protests made sense until I realized how this was foreshadowed about three years ago at a seminar I attended. A small group of journalists, filmmakers, academics and others were invited to share ideas about what was driving public opinion when it came to immigration. In 2006, numbers in the 70 percent range favored immigration reform but legislation got stuck in Congress as if a consensus didn’t exist.
In the mid-term congressional election that year and again in 2008, voters turned out many of those incumbents who favored either punitive approaches or who obstructed change.
The losses contributed to dragging the Republican Party from a majority to a minority in Congress. It was the coming apart of the political tapestry Richard Nixon had begun as early as the turbulent 1970s when he appealed to a “silent majority” who felt alienated by the anti-war and civil right protests.
Republicans were in a similar pickle again in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan appealed to religious groups, as a new constituency, and matters of conscience got into the platform. The “socialism” bugaboo was also thrown about rather recklessly in the political rhetoric of the time.
Now, in the face of Republican contraction, the shrinking size inspires divisive rhetoric like a primal scream.
The 2006 seminar I attended had a lesson that applies today.
A survey showed that roughly a quarter of the public at large is just opposed to any kind of change most of the time, especially measures that involve public expenditures or that appear to give anybody any kind of social “advantage.” This 25 percent mainly perceives itself as bearing the cost and doesn’t calculate benefits to them or others.
About 35 percent of the public is pro-reform. This group knows we can’t continue like this without paying later and that something serious needs to be done.
The struggle is for the hearts and minds of the 40 percent in the middle. They don’t have very well formed opinions on hot-button issues. They are the folks who take cookies over when new neighbors move in and that you see mostly around in church or at the PTA meeting. They are also less susceptible to facile fear mongering.
That’s why the 25-percenters gin up the fear, run all the issues together, turn on the fear factor, and let the angst spill over. Their goal is to get 25 percent plus 1 of the 40-percenters.
Now here’s the problem: the pro-reform 35-percenters need only 15 percent of the middle 40 percent, but liberals and progressives broadcast wonk and complexity, not lifestyle and living. They may be right but their discourse is like reading the fine print of an insurance policy. The message is lost in the details.
That dynamic now stands a good chance of stalemating the kinds of changes needed in health care, education and immigration. While the reactionaries deserve to lose decisively, the liberals and progressives compromise too much and too soon to the 25 percent they will never persuade.
To put the national train back on track means refocusing on reform. That’s done by talking to the middle 40 about the stewardship of the nation through health care, education and immigration to form a more competitive country in the global economy. No-Change means pushing the country into stagnation.
Most of all, tell them the No-Change side speaks for itself. They make as much sense as taking a gun to a town hall meeting or to the PTA.
(Jose de la Isla’s latest digital book, sponsored by The Ford Foundation, is available free at www.DayNightLifeDeathHope.com. He writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service.. E-mail him at joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)