“I Want My Country Back!”: The Demography of Discontent

Throughout August and September, we have seen pictures of angry protesters in town meetings and, most recently, in the streets of Washington. As judged by their pictures, they are predominately older, white, male, born-again Christians. 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 deep down that something has gone wrong, that the country they have known and loved for years is slipping away. Disfranchised and outraged, they identify with the woman who shouted during one of the town hall meetings “I want my country back!” Driven by fear and fury, and certainly not by any 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 both television and radio.

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.

Unsurprisingly, whites (especially those with less education) register the highest levels of discontent with Obama. But it’s also important to recognize that 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 protesters, but their presence should not be overlooked.

And there is one expectation we ought to dispel. Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, the less-educated, racist South has been singled out as the biggest cheerleader of right-wing populist movements, but this is overblown. 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 Midwest 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 to be. Both constituencies are hard hit by the recession: the young worry 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’s possible tax increases and government spending are greater for those in higher income categories. But this worry is most acute not for those at 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 observed in right-wing populist movements, arising among those caught up in the 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 health care is currently the occasion for this 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 values voters in relation to the financial squeeze people find themselves in, 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 symbolic loss of identity and privilege as an older Anglo-Protestant culture, 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.