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Tribalism Fuels Outrage Outrage and Backlash Backlash over TSA Gate-Gate

I got a little ill Monday night when I heard Chris Hayes, DC Editor of The Nation, equate the current storm swirling around the Transportation Security Administration as this post-electoral season’s equivalent to a shark attack. Hayes asserted that there was not enough going on in media terms, and since nature abhors a vacuum, everyone had seized on the backlash against the rollout of full-body backscatter x-rays and more intrusive patdowns and inflated the story beyond its rightful proportion.

Hayes, who was guest-hosting The Rachel Maddow Show, announced that he was suffering from “TSA backlash backlash.”

I was surprised by this reaction from a usually perceptive guy, and worried that an issue that had previously fueled transpartisan outrage was about to fall victim to some of the same knee-jerk tribalism that has knee-capped much of the political dissent in the age of Obama. After looking around, however, not just on this site, but at others in the (for lack of a better term) professional left (former Nation-ite David Corn, for instance), I saw plenty of engaged upset and decided Chris was just having an off night.

Alas, I decided that too soon.

Witness the post that rolled out on The Nation’s website Tuesday evening. Titled “TSAstroturf: The Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians Behind the TSA Scandal,” Mark Ames and Yasha Levine (no relation) set out to dismiss those troubled by the porno-scanners and punitive gropes as part of burgeoning blanket of Astroturf—an interconnected and well-funded collection of right wing agents—or their unwitting dupes. Glenn Greenwald and Jane have already done an able job of expressing my outrage over the outrage about the outrage, so let me instead share with you another reaction I had to The Nation’s story—in fact, it was my initial reaction when I saw the headline blaming Koch-funded Astroturf:

. . . because this tactic worked so well during the last election cycle!?!

[cont’d.]Yes, there are libertarians, and even people on the ideological right (!), who are outraged, upset, angered and very publicly exercised about what I have taken to calling “Gate-gate”—some are even sowing discontent for selfish and nefarious reasons—but does that mean that all scrutiny and scorn is invalid? Just because the Obama Administration has decided to go all in on the Rapiscan machines and junk-touching, and a leaderless Democratic caucus in Congress has found little difference between running cover for the White House and running for cover, themselves, it doesn’t mean many in the traveling public don’t feel invaded by the protocols and incensed by the procurement boondoggle and for-profit fearmongering. Sure, some are demagoguing this with an eye toward privatizing airport security—an end that would financially benefit the few and undermine the safety of many—but the alternative is not a simple gainsaying, embracing radiation exposure, security theater and abridged civil rights tighter than a blue latex glove grabs your inner thigh.

According to the GAO, neither the scanners’ manufacturer or the TSA has proven that the full-body x-ray scans are safe. Though government officials from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on down like to bug-out their eyes and scream “underwear bomber,” no security expert could testify under oath that this system would catch such a methodology, and no one will claim with a straight face that any of this will keep us safe from explosives hidden in a body cavity—or in cargo, for that matter. No one can contradict the connection between former DHS chief Michael Chertoff and Rapiscan, and I have yet to see a serious justification of the use of stimulus funds to buy more porno-scanners when they were not approved through the normal appropriations process. Nor has anyone stepped up to refute the official documentation reporting that only one (yes, count ‘em, one) job was created with that $25 million in stimulus money.

Ignoring the anger and demonizing the angry does not service liberty or security, and it doesn’t do much for the causes of progressives or the Democratic Party, either.

In fact, as my reaction-cum-quip indicates, the emerging tribal trampling of Gate-gate is the Democratic establishment’s reaction to the rise of the tea parties in microcosm.

During the early days of the Obama administration, with the economy teetering and millions of people jobless, broke and/or scared, an absence of aggressive leadership from the White House and an alliance with remnants of the previous regime (in both ideology and personnel) created space for the right to demagogue. Then, because the right wing seized the moment and claimed the fear and anger as their own (or co-opted it with Astroturf), the captured left doubled down on the failed strategy–defended the too-small stimulus as plenty big, defended the troubled TARP as the economy’s only savior, claimed the flailing economy was showing “green shoots,” sold the health care overhaul as more beneficial and immediate than it could ever prove to be—and discounted the valid discontents. And this created even more room on the right for even more of the demagoguery and Astroturf.

It becomes, all at once, a self-fulfilling prophecy and a self-defeating strategy. Claiming it is all a problem with the administration’s messaging while shooting at the other tribe’s messenger only exacerbates the real-world scandal and the political crisis. Telling the angry that they do not come by their feelings honestly not only doesn’t comfort them, it usually makes them all the more furious.

It all serves to accelerate what Jane has called the “cycle of decay.” Defending the tribe, the crony capitalism, the plain-as-day policy failures first, and asking questions later, only increases the risk, and that risk increases fear, which amplifies the outrage. The outraged, pretty much by definition, are not ripe for a wonky policy discussion; the fear they feel perhaps primes them for ready-made, over-simple solutions–even ones from right-wing Astroturfers–and that can produce outcomes that provoke the next crisis.

The resulting crises, or more accurately those who profit from these crises, don’t really care about the messenger, however; they are focused on the outcome. Perhaps those on the left now flocking to defend unnecessary x-rays, naked pictures, punitive patdowns, abridged civil liberties—and all that junk—should also try to be this results-oriented.

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Gregg Levine

Gregg Levine