President Obama's pioneering use of the Internet for political organizing is now giving a boost to right-wing organizers of efforts to block Obama's health care proposals.
Thus, Sen. Arlen Specter encountered angry, shouting opponents of reform in Lebanon, Pa., on Tuesday. Obama met with a mostly friendly crowd in Portsmouth, N.H., the same day, though protesters stood vigil with placards outside.
An e-mail has gone out to try to round up activists in Colorado to protest Obama's "socialized medicine proposals" when the president appears this weekend in Grand Junction.
Young liberals formed the backbone of Obama's successful presidential campaign last year, and Web-based communication helped organize meetings at the grass roots all across the country.
Now anger is boiling up among conservatives at the wave of change Obama has fostered as president. Health care is target number one, but voices of discontent have also focused on Obama's stimulus package, the bank bailouts and global warming legislation. The angry white male who surfaced in the '90s in the service of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution is angry again about the resurgence of big government.
Liberal change always provokes a backlash. A glow of nostalgia surrounds the presidency of John F. Kennedy, but it is useful to remember that the political context of the time included vigilante groups called the Minutemen, right-wing extremists such as the John Birch Society, and virulent racism that found continuing expression through the Ku Klux Klan and others.
It is common to look back at history as a parade of presidents, which gives an ordered appearance to our past. A wider focuses reveals a history of ferment. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901, the nation was menaced by a coal strike that threatened the welfare of millions as winter approached. Labor ferment and the Red Scare dominated much of the last century. So we should not be surprised by the surge in political turbulence this year, exacerbated by the economic collapse and magnified by the election of a liberal African-American president.
Responsible policymakers have the job of keeping cool heads amid the clamor of voices from left and right. In the '60s and '70s, much of the clamor came from the left, much of it justified, but much of it loony. Democrats suffered by association with the loony. Responsible mainstream politicians such as Hubert Humphrey fell victim to the craziness.
Mainstream Republicans today have done little to distance themselves from the looniness on the right. They have countenanced a variety of lies and misinformation about everything from health care to Obama's birth certificate in an effort to slow Obama's momentum. It is unclear so far whether the broad public will be turned off by the campaign of anger and disrespect that has been unleashed across the country.
Obama has generally done a good job of separating himself from the strident voices, offering the nation instead arguments of reason and calm. That's what he was doing in Portsmouth Tuesday, trying to discount the myths opponents are peddling on health care reform.
Figures in the middle will have to decide whether it is better for them to identify themselves with the strident right (many of whom seem willfully to misspell the president's first name) or with the voices of reason and change of those seeking to plot a responsible course amid the clamor.