Less than a year into Barack Obama's presidency, the promise of hope has faded. America's public square is an angry and bitter place.
Finger pointing and yelling at town hall meetings this summer are signs of a country that's been building toward a boiling point for several years, stressed by a fast-changing economy, a flood of immigration and threats at home by terrorists.
It's a land at turns frustrated and irate at a government that led the country into an unpopular war, proved itself inept at helping its citizens in a disastrous hurricane, presided over a historic economic collapse, then went on a spending spree that could commit the nation to decades of crushing debt.
Untold numbers of Americans seethe with anger at Obama and his fellow Democrats, resentment coupled with fear even more intense than the rage other Americans expressed just a year ago at George W. Bush and the Republicans. One telling sign: The comparisons of the president to Hitler remain the same – only the face has changed from Bush to Obama.
“It's ugly,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “Ugly and sad because there were many of us who felt the ugliness could be transcended this time.”
Americans throughout their history have been prone to periods of anger and suspicion against one another, particularly in times of change and stress. The anti-Catholic Know-Nothings of the 1850s, the rise of the Klan in the 1870s, the Palmer Raids against leftist radicals and immigrants in the 1920s, McCarthyism in the 1950s.
This anger is more focused on the federal government, a resurgence of the hostility toward the government that started with Vietnam in the 1960s and Watergate in the '70s, faded in the '80s, resurfaced in the early 1990s and then faded away again.
“There seems to be a reservoir of anger in the country of a particularly intense and shrill variety that it is not simply what's appeared at the town meetings,” said Michael Barkun, a political scientist at Syracuse University and an expert on extremist groups.
“In a sense, they were the most visible sign of something that may be larger.”
Some of the rising anger predates Obama – built on the natural American DNA of skepticism toward the government, exacerbated by moves to give the government more power in both the Bush and Obama administrations, and magnified and spread by a new era of communications.
Threats and inappropriate messages to federal judges and court personnel doubled from 2002 to 2008, forcing the U.S. Marshals Service to open a new Threat Management Center to handle the workload.
The number of people refusing to pay taxes to a government they claim is illegitimate rose so much in recent years that the IRS last year created a National Tax Defier Initiative to fight them.
Illegal immigration from Latin America has fed resentment, as well as a fear among some groups that the country's very sovereignty was at risk.
Some warn of secret plans for a North American Union that would meld the U.S. with Canada and Mexico. Others say that Mexicans have a secret “Plan de Aztlan” that would reconquer the southwestern U.S.
The ranks of self-styled militia groups is on the rise, with 50 new groups cropping up, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks hate groups.
“They're just bristling with anger,” said Larry Keller, who wrote a recent analysis of militia for the center. “It's the most growth we've seen in 10-12 years. It's not what it was in the early '90s, but it's trending that way.”
‘How wave elections start'
To be sure, Obama's also contributed to the anger: rage at soaring federal spending that will add $9trillion to the national debt, a government takeover of General Motors, a huge new plan to regulate the environment and now a big plan to change health care.
As Congress was debating the proposed regulation of emissions that cause global warming, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., warned that people needed to stand up to the legislation.
“I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back,” she said. “Thomas Jefferson told us, ‘Having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,' and the people, we the people, are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country.”
Obama's agenda has stalled in this environment, and experts see a wave building against him and his party similar the one that swept the Democrats out of power in Congress in 1994.
“This is how wave elections start,” said independent political analyst Charlie Cook. “If the election were held today, the Democratic losses would be huge.”
At the same time, Obama has aggravated some of the anti-government fervor by maintaining some of the Bush-era national security policies that already had scared liberals and conservatives alike.
Last week, Obama's Homeland Security Department announced that it would maintain the Bush policy of allowing the government to search laptops and cell phones of Americans returning from overseas, even without suspicion.
More ways to spread words
A common theme of much of the anti-government anger is the fear that the tools created to fight terrorism – such as the Patriot Act, warrantless spying on Americans, and the claimed right to hold people without charge or trial – might also be used against critics or dissidents.
Some of the anger is driven by conspiracy theories – secret government camps to lock up dissenters, guillotines to behead opponents and a government illegally led by a foreigner – and spreads at breakneck speed via the Internet and over the airwaves.
Always present in politics, anger now is rapidly focused and spread through new forms of communication.
“In '94, you had talk radio,” Cook said. “In '09, you have talk radio, Fox and the Internet. It just magnifies the arguments.”