Fear in the Heartland

The health care “debate” has been transformed into a confusing screaming match fueled by wild nativist fears. As Senator Chuck Grassley has found out at town meetings in Iowa, health care really is not the issue that’s on the minds of many. Instead, it’s all about the nation’s economic turmoil: People are hurting, and don’t see the stimulus plan helping them. From there, its a short leap to attacking the Federal Reserve, and what many perceive as a threatening, directionless federal government that is bent on controlling their daily lives.  And Grassley appears to be ready to capitalize on the anger:

Not everyone is coming to the town hall meetings because of health care. It’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grassley said. “They’re seeing the stimulus not working. They’re seeing the Federal Reserve shoving money out of the airplane not working. They’re seeing big increases in the deficit coming. Then they see a trillion-dollar health-care bill, and they think it’s not good for the country.”

The anger and paranoia directed at the government in general, and Obama in particular, that can be glimpsed at the tea parties and town hall meetings are ugly and often racist, depicting the president as everything from a socialist granny-killer to the anti-Christ himself. They’re also downright frightening, considering the fact that so many of these people own guns. But they are based on genuine fear, and sometimes on real suffering. 

These fears remind me of the fears that ran through the Midwest more than 20 years ago, during the 1984 presidential election. Back then Walter Mondale was vainly fighting Ronald Reagan, against a backdrop of farm foreclosures,bank crackdowns, penny auctions, and fight back by rural people in the heartland. Then as now, people showed up in angry knots–not unlike today’s town meetings–at foreclosure s to shout down the auctioneers, trying to save a farm. The gun of choice at that time was the semi-automatic mini 14, which was held by some in the same esteem as the Colt 45 did back in the day. Some turned to the Bible, watched the skies for Soviet bombers, dug themselves into bunkers.

All in all, then as now, what we faced was an outpouring of nativism–fears of the unknown, of the foreigner coming across our borders, of a sinister hegemonic government, of things going out of control. This was the desperate response of people who had lost farms that had been in their families for generations, had lost their way of life, and were scared and angry and looking for someone or something to blame–and who found no viable populist alternative on the left.

If you can’t remember those days, rent Country starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard and written in part by Shepard, who knows this world well.  It was shot in Iowa in 1984, and showed a couple struggling to save their family farm, against greedy banks and government policies that paved the way for a takeover by large agribusinesses.  At that time Reagan said the film “was a blatant propaganda message against our agri programs.” The film’s tag line was “In this country, when the land is your life…you fight for your life.”

Progressives then waited anxiously for the movie’s release, hoping it could channel the nativist far right politics into a constructive force. Things didn’t quite work out that way: Folks in the heartland stuck, literally, to their guns. They aren’t likely to work out any better now.

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