Politics in the age of anger

Voters are ticked off, stoked by high unemployment, a cranky economy, polarizing politicians and the never-ending left/right political debate online and over the air.

Though the militant extremists are sopping up the media coverage, it’s the pragmatic approach to solving the nation’s problems that works best for the predominantly middle-of-the-road American public.

At least that’s the opinion of the panelists who participated in a RIC American Democracy Project forum on Sept. 21 in Alger Hall.

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Jim Taricani
The subject was “The Politics of Anger in the 2010 Election,” and the panel, which included Gordon Fox, speaker of the R.I. House of Representatives; Arlene Violet, former R.I. attorney general; Mark Curtis, ABC-6 political reporter; Maureen Moakley, University of Rhode Island political science professor; and forum moderator Jim Taricani, NBC-10 I-Team reporter, agreed there is anger among voters, but it’s not a first – nor the worst– in the country’s history.

Taricani noted that anger abounded during the 1960s era of civil rights and anti-war protests as well as in 1994 when the Republicans’ Contract with America helped them to gain a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years.

“In terms of rhetoric, this is very tame,” compared to other times, said Moakley.

Curtis said that the fury now roiling has been sustained for about a decade, thanks to a confluence of events occurring seemingly every year since 2000, when disagreement on counting the votes left that year’s presidential election up for grabs for over a month. He cited 9/11 in 2001, the Iraq war in 2003, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as a series of scandals and the collapse of the economy in 2008 that have left people in a cynical mood.

Arlene Violet
“Anger can be a motivation but can also be immobilizing,” Violet said. With all the rage, it’s hard to know who is telling the truth, she added.

One of the movements emblematic of the ire in the U.S. is the Tea Party. Colleen Conley, founder of the R.I. Tea Party, had agreed to be a panelist, but did not attend the event.

Moakley called the Tea Party movement “not monolithic, somewhat confused,” but also “a force to be reckoned with.”

She said that members tend to be Republican, older, dissatisfied. She believes, however, that they’re causing problems with the GOP nationally because they appeal mainly to a slice of the electorate on the far right.

So while candidates they’ve endorsed have had recent success in primaries – Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, for example – the Tea Party-backed candidates could fail to attract enough voters for success in the general elections in November.

Curtis faulted the media for highlighting the offensive actions taken by few members of the Tea party at rallies, even though most, he said, protested peacefully.

“I’m not sure what to make of it,” Fox said of the Tea Party, adding that the movement seemed to be “all over the map.”

Maureen Moakley
Anger in the country is also being directed at President Obama from, not surprisingly, the right, but he’s had to dodge digs from the left as well.

“I think he’s more of a pragmatist,” said Moakley, who added that Obama is generally on the same page as the public. “The extremists are oftentimes the elected officials while the public tends to be in the middle.”

Expectations for Obama are unrealistic, according to Moakley. Some think Obama should have jumped into the water and plugged the damaged oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, she joked.

According to Fox, decisions on issues should be made on a pragmatic level. Implicit in governing, he noted, is that elected officials have to talk to and understand each other.

“At some point you have to add to the discourse,” he said. Just because you don’t agree with a decision doesn’t mean your opponent is “stupid” or “corrupt,” Fox said.

Curtis repeated a maxim that he regards as central to the discussion about the affairs of state: “Politics is as much about math as it is about ideology.”

Gordon Fox
President Ronald Reagan, for example, was a pragmatist, Curtis said. When the math didn’t add up in terms of votes for an initiative, he moved on from it. And because Democrats saw that they had the necessary votes in the House and Senate, they moved quickly to pass healthcare reform, he explained.

The media’s role in political climate also came under scrutiny.

Moakley cited the fact that CNN, considered by many to be an evenhanded news organization, has not been successful, while the more politically partisan Fox News and MSNBC get better ratings.

There is currently a “state of confusion” concerning the media, claimed Curtis. Now, you are your own “news producer,” who gets news from wherever you choose, he said, warning of bad sources with information “disguised as fact.”

Curtis recited the Mark Twain line: “A lie travels half way around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.”

Violet told the students at the forum she hoped they could be a change agent and “leaders for the common good.”

Mark Curtis
One of those students, Luis Almanzar-Galvan, used two words that perhaps best summed up the feelings of the U.S. electorate: “I’m tired.”

In a voice that seemed sad, yet hopeful, Almanzar-Galvan told the audience, “The system is swallowing us up.” He added that he wanted solutions to problems and didn’t care which party was in power as long as the job got done.

That seemed to be the kind of pragmatic approach many would welcome, but, based on the commentaries of the panel, probably won’t happen anytime soon.