I love this photo. It was taken at the NH protest when Obama held his town hall in Portsmouth. Click on it to embiggen.
Now, obviously the guy in the middle is having fun at the expense of the others. But his sign ("We have NO idea what we're talking about", with arrows pointing to the protesters) really touches on truth.
What is the message of the protesters?
Well, who knows? It all seems to be misdirected anger. Or rather, anger directed in every direction.
For example, on the left side of the picture, a man wearing a confederate shirt is holding a sign saying "Abolish federal government". Right next to him is a man with a sign saying, "We the People ARE the government".
So apparently, the protesters are collectively saying that we need to abolish ourselves. Good message.
Then there is someone who says "NO to health care reform", while another says "Just give us the same helath care plan as Congress". Uh, fellas? Which is it?
Some of the signs standing alone don't make much sense. "Heath care reform = drug testing = piss in cup first". I swear to God — I know that is in English, but I don't know what that means.
All this goes to my larger point about these protests. Sure, I have no doubt that there are legitimate concerns with health care reform, but I honestly don't know if these people are against health care reform per se, or against particulars of Obama's health care reform. Or maybe they're just against Obama.
On message, people.
Mostly, however, I don't think this is about health care at all. I think these people are mostly just ginned up, fearful, and angry, because they listen to rightwing radio and media, which is doing an admittedly great job of creating fear and anger. Fear about what? Anger directed at what?
It doesn't matter. It's almost like the James Dean line from "Rebel Without A Cause". "What are you rebelling against?" "(Shrug) What do you got?"
UPDATE — I hand the mike over to Darrin Hutchinson at Salon, who makes the same point and expands on it:
On Wednesday, an article distributed by the Associated Press confirmed my original understanding of the protestors' opposition to big government: It is selective and contradictory.
Big government for you, but not for me!
Although the Associated Press article does not analyze the irony of the protestors' positions, it nonetheless presents a factual basis for concluding that many of the activists suffer from selective opposition to big government. Consider the following passage:
Nancy Snyder says she kept quiet when abortion was legalized and prayer in schools was eliminated. Not this time.
"They did it for prayer, they did it for abortion, and they're not going to do it for our healthcare," the 70-year-old nurse from Philipsburg, Pa., said Wednesday as she and her husband Robert, 74, a retired coal miner, waited in a long, snaking line for Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter's town hall meeting.
Apparently, Snyder believes that it is perfectly fine for the government to dictate the reproductive choices of women and to force kids to pray in school. Expanding the availability of healthcare is outlandish. All of these situations, however, involve "big government."
Big government for me, but not for you!
Ironically, many of the people whom the article portrays as fuming over "socialized medicine" probably have state-sponsored health plans. Accordingly, if the protestors actually applied their anti-government rhetoric to their own lives, many of them would lose health insurance coverage or would have to spend a fortune to obtain it.
One protestor is a public school teacher, who undoubtedly has a public-sponsored health plan and pension (along with his salary). In other words, the individual is living on the taxation of others. Another person has a 74-year old husband, who is likely on Medicare — the largest government-sponsored health plan. Even if these individuals have "private" plans provided by their employers, the public still pays for roughly 1/3 of the costs of these plans through favorable tax treatment (for further discussion, see here and here).
According to a recent Gallup report, only 13.3 percent of Americans with health insurance purchase their policies on the open market. The remaining individuals are enrolled in either state-sponsored plans or in employer plans that are heavily subsidized by state and federal tax policy. The notion of a free market in health insurance is a myth for the vast majority of Americans.
Big government for Bush, but not for Obama!
It also seems like many of the protestors have conveniently repressed their memories of George Bush's expansion of government, including his role in the expensive bailouts of the financial sectors and of the auto industry. Bush and Paulson proposed the financial sector bailout and ushered it through Congress. Bush also structured a $17.4 billion bailout for the auto industry, claiming authority to do so pursuant to the financial sector legislation. Despite this very recent history, the protestors apparently blame Obama exclusively:
For many opponents the health care overhaul amounts to the final straw. After seeing Obama bail out banks and car dealers, push a major energy bill and pass a $787 billion economic stimulus package that hasn't driven down unemployment, overhauling the $2.5 trillion U.S. health care system is a step too far.
Certainly, the fact that Bush also accelerated public spending and cut taxes simultaneously should have concerned these proud stewards of the national treasury, but only Obama's spending has caused them to mobilize. The protestors are acting, to use Ron Paul's language, like "born-again fiscal conservatives." If Obama is wrong for spending more during an economic downturn, Bush was definitely wrong for spending more while intentionally taking in less.