“I Want My Country Back!”

Wade Clark Roof is Director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Working with Clark on the poll, “The First 100 Days – Integrity, Leadership, Trust” was more than a positive experience. His sense of integrity, scholarship and clear thinking inspires my own work.  Utilizing poll results, Clark offers his own assessment on recent event

Throughout August and September we have seen pictures of angry protesters in town-meetings and, most recently, in the streets of Washington, DC. As judged by their pictures, they are predominately white, male, born-again Christians, older Americans. Their signs point to a mix of frustrations – what could happen to the health care they have, the future of the free-market, big government and its spending, bailing out the banks and auto industry, death panels, socialism, Barack Obama.

Clearly, they feel deeply that something has gone wrong, that the country they have known and loved for years is now slipping away from them. Disfranchised and outraged, they identify with the woman who shouted during one of the town-hall meetings –“I want my country back!” Driven both by fear and fury, and certainly not by any one singularly framed argument, they latch on to one or another scapegoat, prodded by the incessant and inflammatory voices of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others on cable news networks.

But what has come to a head in the recent public displays is not altogether unexpected. Pollsters back in the spring examining the “First 100 Days” of the Obama Presidency picked up on the beginnings of a potentially more widespread discontent. In a national survey conducted by Zogby International for the Walter H. Capps Center at UCSB in late April, for example, over three thousand Americans were asked, “How confident are you that President Obama is moving the country in the right direction?” More than a third – 39 percent – responded in the extreme negative, saying they were “not at all confident.”

Who are these extremely discontented Americans? By and large, they fit a profile we might expect, yet there are some surprises.

In keeping with previous trends, they are more likely to attend religious services. The “God Gap” between Democrats and Republicans as it came to be known during the Bush years persists: over half of those attending services more than once a week and 48 percent of those attending weekly, said they were not at all confident about the direction the president was moving the country. Not surprisingly, too, more than half were born-again Christians.

Of course, whites — and especially those lesser educated – register the highest levels of discontent with Obama. But important to recognize, 55 percent of Asians, a third of Hispanics, and half of all other immigrants were not at all confident. The faces of these latter constituencies show up less in the media coverage of angry protestors, but their presence should not be overlooked.

And there is one expectation we ought to dispel. Since the Scopes Trial the less educated, racist South has been singled out as where right-wing populist movements find the strongest support, but this is over-blown. Today we observe a nationally-based resistance movement to Obama sustained by political and religious networks and led by conservative activists. The April poll suggested there was actually less confidence in Obama among people in the Mid-West and West than in the South.

So what new do we learn?  Two observations in particular are worth noting. One is the age breakdown. Lack of confidence in the president was greatest among those 25-34 years-old, those now moving into jobs and careers, many forming families, and for seniors over 70 who are already retired or hope soon to be. Both constituencies are hard hit by the recession: the young worried about their future employment, the old about whether they will have sufficient savings for retirement.

A second has to do with income. Not surprisingly, concerns about Obama and possible tax increases and government spending are greater for those in higher income categories. But this worry is most acute not for those in the very highest income level but within the $75,000-$100,000 category. Frustration and anger bubble up among those especially who are relatively well-off but fear their financial security is uncertain and might erode. This is a pattern long having been observed with right-wing populist movements: they arise among those caught up in fear of loss.

Interesting too, but not shown here is that the Zogby poll asked respondents to indicate how they preferred to identify where they lived – in their own town or city, in America, or on planet Earth. Fifty-five percent among those expressing no confidence in the president say they are from America, most of them actually dwelling in small towns and rural areas. Forty-eight percent are NASCAR fans and 53 percent report weekly trips to Wal-Mart, adding to the profile of a constituency vulnerable to conservative activists who often play to class and cultural resentment.

The politics of healthcare is currently the occasion for this vitriolic rancor. The “values voters” are enjoying a new spurt of energy, intensified in their concerns about big government and control. But we have to see the value voters in relation to the financial squeeze people find themselves in, and one made worse by the continuing uncertainty about the pace of recovery and, of course, whether such recovery will include them.

Economic insecurity combined with the symbolic losses in identity and privilege as an older Anglo-Protestant culture declines helps to explain what is going on. And then add the appeals to traditional faith and morality and you have a very explosive mix. What lies behind the lady’s shout at the town-hall meeting, perhaps her greatest fear, is that she can’t get her country back.

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