"Divided we ever have been, and ever must be"--John Adams
The recent rise in tensions and confrontations as debate heats up over health care reform, is a sign of healthy democracy. It is inevitable that sometimes passions will boil over every now and then. But in a country the size of the US, especially one where each Congressman represents roughly 650,000 people, shouting is going to happen.
Part of what we see on display, however, is a continuation of the underlying tensions that American politics has seen for quite some time. We have two political spectrums in the US. First there is the spectrum that includes all US citizens. In that spectrum, to oversimplify, National Review is about as far to the Right as The New Republic is to the Left.
In addition to that political spectrum, we have the elite political spectrum. In that spectrum, The New Republic is on the center-right. If one tracks the opinions of people who staff our news organizations, our governments (at all levels) and our major corporate bureaucracies, their opinions, particularly on cultural issues, but also on other issues such as immigration and health care regulation, are to the Left of the general mainstream. Particularly among those people who live in New York, Washington, and LA, this is what used to be called the "New Class." In those cities, there tends to be a bit of a bubble because the concentration of members of this group is so high.
Part of the anger aimed at President Bush, and the GOP Congress, I suspect, grew from the tension between the two political spectrums. What is mainstreatm conventional wisdom in Washington is often not mainstream in the US as a whole. The members of the New class tend to see themselves as post-partisan, neutral, well educated people who are simply trying to serve the public. Since they don’t often hear truly dissenting voices, they dismiss protests as irrational. Peter Jennings’ famous comment that in 1994 the voters threw a tantrum in 1994 is the emblematic statement of this attitude. From Jennings’ perspective, the GOP is, by definition, out of the mainstream. The party that captured Congress was, by definition, an extremist movement to Jennings and the other members of his class.
Hence people like Paul Krugman believe that "the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement." One could also say that the dismissal of those who dissent from liberal conventional wisdom as irrational grows from cultural anxiety--one that grows from the tension between the belief in democracy and the belief in the rule of the New class. Krugman’s mainstream is not really the mainstream.
One further point. The GOP establishment is not so far from the elite mainstream in many ways. That reality led to much of the anger directed at the GOP during the Bush years. Now that the Democrats hold all three houses of the legislature, there is more clarity in this situation.