On the phone from Summerville, Massachusetts, Chip Berlet, the co-author of Right-Wing Populism In America: Too Close for Comfort, spoke with the Current on the state of dissent in America.
When was the last time there was real debate in American politics?
(laughs) That's a tough question. Kennedy and Carter tried. And, even on occasion, Ford. You have to give him credit for trying, he was a nice guyâ?¦
How much of this anger shown at town hall meetings is real and how much is it manufactured?
We have to distinguish between the people that are genuinely very angry because they're misinformed, and the people who are there trained to just disrupt. Anger in a democratic society is common place and acceptable. Disruption is not.
What's the significance and real danger of people with weapons at rallies?
I understand that often this is legal, but it is very insulting and very aggressive. If a whole bunch of black people or undocumented aliens showed up with guns at a meeting with white elected officials, there would be a very different response.
Ask the Black Panthersâ?¦
Exactly! And look a `Rodolfo` “Corky” GonzÃ¡lez or colored leaders who have been targeted when they tried to defend themselves.
Yet, when white people show up with guns, it's their God-given rightâ?¦
Exactly. When colored people do it it's dangerous and has to be stopped, and it involves the police. But when white people do it it's just “exercising their constitutional right.” There's something wrong with that, isn't it?
Can Obama bounce back from this mess?
I think he can bounce back if Democrats can find their backbone. When did it happen that someone shouts at Democratic leaders, and they roll up into a corner and give up all of their options? It's pathetic. I think two things need to happen: the Democrats need to get behind Obama, and people need to go back into the streets and talk about single-payer system of health care for everybody. That's what most of us want. So many lies and distortions have spread across the country that decent people, who really want the best for America, now have come to believe this gigantic plot to impose tyranny on America in some form of socialized medicine that will kill granny! It's ridiculous.
Needless to say, you don't believe real reform is possible without a public option, right?
I don't believe real reform is possible without a public option and I think it was a serious error to take single-payer off the table. I don't knowâ?¦ I was a shop steward, and I never went into a negotiation by giving the other side everything that they wanted.
Is the “bi-partisan” argument valid? Why should Obama become a prick and just do his thing, the way Bush and Cheney did?
I think he's sincere in that, he wants to have a different kind of public dialogue. But you can't have a public dialogue with a rabid dog chewing on your ankle. He has to make it clear that this manufacture of lies is not acceptable. I've been an angry protester at meetings, but I haven't tried to shout people down. I've protested outside, but I've never carried a gun. It's ok for people to be angry and ask questions, but not with anger that is rage, that's bitter, and nasty and vicious. Democrats and Republicans shouldn't make up information, but right now it is the Republicans and insurance companies making up information, and that's not acceptable. There is a difference between a legitimate angry question that expects an answer, and staged confrontations with people so full of rage that they stop listening. That's not what democracy is about.