Krugman: Health care debate has not been a Norman Rockwell affair

There's a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled "Freedom of Speech," depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors don't like what he's saying, but they're letting him speak his mind.

That's a far cry from what has been happening at recent town halls, where angry protesters have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health care reform.

Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there's no comparison. I've gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I can't find any examples of congressmen shouted down, hanged in effigy or surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.

So this is something new and ugly. Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Many of the rioters were actually GOP staffers from Washington.

But Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two fake grass-roots organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patients' Rights.

The latter group is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion in fines.

But while the organizers are crass, I haven't seen any evidence that the people disrupting those town halls are rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Barack Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. But they're probably reacting less to what Obama is doing than to who he is. That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that's behind the "birther" movement, which denies Obama's citizenship.

Sound familiar? It should: It's a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites.

Obama's backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because his administration isn't living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity. If Obama can't inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.