The manipulation of anger

The manipulation of anger

- in Fitzsimon File

The anger and frustration in the country is now a central part of the national debate as both political parties vie desperately to manipulate the unrest to their advantage, testing polls and focus groups with messages that have only the faintest ties to reality.

Republicans profess to be the party of limited government as they privately write letters to federal officials begging for money for their states from the stimulus package they condemn as wasteful spending in their appearances on Fox News.

They are somehow defending our personal liberty with their opposition to health care reform that seeks to provide access to care for those who can't afford it and say our personal freedom is threatened by a domineering nanny state as they oppose restrictions on smoking in public or efforts to reduce the salt content in foods.

But there's no talk of a nanny when they refuse to allow gays and lesbians to marry or let a woman make decisions about her own body and reproductive health.

Democrats are responding to the frustrated public by trying to recapture the mantle of the party of the working class with occasional public criticism of Wall Street even as they privately bow to the finance industry's wishes by backing away from meaningful regulation of the greedy practices that brought the economy to its knees.

Despite its noble intentions, even health care reform started with a compromise with the pharmaceutical industry, not exactly a message that the party is looking out for the common people first.

The contradictions are not lost on observers of the American experience. A recent column in the International Herald Tribune talked of the "fault lines in the American dream" that are reflected in the popular culture, that while most Americans tell pollsters they still believe they can achieve the Dream if they work hard and play by the rules, an increasing number say it is harder to get ahead, reflecting a rising tension between the rich and poor.

The columnist said that when he returned to America after six years in India, he found a shift away from the Horatio Alger mythology and a rising belief that "class is a fate, not a situation," and that things are rigged against the underdog.

There's news every day to confirm that suspicion, from a seldom discussed special tax break for Wall Street fund managers that allows them to pay less of their income in taxes than most middle class workers to a Colorado executive who makes $320,000 and tells the local paper she should not be considered wealthy.

Closer to home, North Carolina leaders tell us this is not the year to reform the state tax code that punishes the poor by taxing far more of the goods they buy than the services the wealthy use. It is never the year.

Instead the battle is over which mental health service to cut, which tuition for the middle class to raise, and which grade will no longer have teacher assistants to help kids who are struggling to read. And that's from the Democrats currently in power.

The alternative from Republicans trying to unseat them is more cuts, not less, and tiresome claims about the evils of big government adapted from the empty rhetoric of their national counterparts.

That's not much of a choice for most North Carolinians and their reaction to that realization has moved from apathy to anger, sending the political class scrambling for a way to respond.

Maybe all the polling and focus groups can come up with a slogan or a bumper sticker this year that can help one party hold a few seats in Congress or win a few more in the General Assembly.

But that's not an answer to the anger, it is at best a way to deflect it from what the Herald-Tribune columnist senses among many Americans as a feeling he describes as the "pardonable frustration of sensing that time is working against them."

Time and political leaders in both parties who often seem more interested in using the public anxiety than addressing the real problems that created it.