Appealing to a conservative ‘hero’

APPEALING TO A CONSERVATIVE ‘HERO’…. I’ve only been vaguely aware of who Katy Abram is. I saw a segment on “The Daily Show” this week that showed Abram questioning Sen. Arlen Specter at a town-hall event in Pennsylvania, but apparently she’s become something of a cause celebre on the right. Rep. John Culberson (R) of Texas described Abram yesterday as his “hero,” so it’s worth looking into what’s on her mind.

On Tuesday, Abram, 35, told Specter that she’s worried about “the systematic dismantling of this country,” and she wanted the senator to know, “We are tired of this.” It wasn’t clear what “this” was, but she went on to say that she fears the United States “turning into Russia.” Abram concluded by asking, to considerable applause, “What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution?”

This was aired to a national television audience and, apparently, quickly made Abram something of a conservative star, including multiple appearances on Fox News. She also appeared this week on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” guest hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell. Hoping to get a better sense of what Abram and her admirers are thinking, I watched the interview.

She explained, for example, that “they” want small businesses to pay higher taxes, “or it sounds like they want us to pay more.” O’Donnell noted the tax increases would only apply to families with incomes over $250,000. Asked if that would apply to her family, she said, “Honestly, I’d rather not say. I don’t even know. My husband takes care of the bills and everything.”

Of particular interest, though, was how we would, in her words, “restore this country back to what our founders created according to the Constitution.” From the MSNBC transcript:

“I mean, I — you know, yes, I mean, there are programs in place that, you know, the — the founders did not want to have here. The — you know, I know that there are people out there that can’t afford health insurance, that can’t afford a lot of different things. And, you know, with the founders, they had — they thought and hoped that the goodness of the people would allow the people to take care of those who could — who were doing without.

“And I know that may seem naive in today’s world. We stayed at a friend’s house last night who is at the other end of the spectrum than what I am. And we have had political debates a million times over. And he thought, isn’t it naive, you know, to think that way? People don’t do that anymore.

“And I said, not everybody, but a lot of people that I know go on missions. They-they-they volunteer.”

I’m not interested in picking on Katy Abram. I am interested in why she’s become a conservative “hero,” and how to make the case to her and others like her that policies such as health care reform are not evidence of “the systematic dismantling of this country.”

Bob Somerby had an interesting item the other day about Abram’s “Hardball” appearance. “[T]his brings us to a basic question about American politics,” he wrote. “Abram was a pleasant, smiling presence throughout. But she’s unsophisticated, unlettered, about public affairs…. [H]ere’s the problem…. The vast majority of American voters are unsophisticated, unlettered, about politics! … They aren’t schooled, lettered or sophisticated concerning public affairs…. They often don’t know what they’re talking about. They can often be badly misled.”

Quite right. Katy Abram is a sympathetic figure who has become a “hero” to conservative lawmakers and television personalities, despite the fact that she doesn’t really know much about public affairs, public policy, economics, or history. The right is extremely effective at misleading folks like Abram, which in turn helps shape public policy debates.

Mocking Katy Abram doesn’t address the underlying problem — if Americans agree with her, their side wins, and conditions for all of us in the United States get worse. It doesn’t matter if someone thinks she’s dumb; it matters a great deal whether her confusion holds the country back.

What I don’t know is what to do about it. We’re not going to turn the clock back to an 18th-century agrarian society where families in need of basic public services hope volunteer missions come to their aid. We’re not going to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, public schools, and the interstate highway system to “restore” the United States to what conservatives think the nation’s founders might have preferred.

So, does this suggest we need to dumb down the discourse to appeal to those who are unsophisticated, unlettered, and unschooled? For all the talk about President Obama talking to Americans like we’re grown-ups, should part of the discussion be shifted to speak to those who don’t follow or understand public affairs?

I don’t know Katy Abram, but I can imagine a family like the Abrams losing their health coverage — maybe some gets sick, maybe someone loses a job, etc. — and needing care that could bankrupt them. Volunteer missions aren’t going to cut it. What families like these need, in other words, are the kind of reforms they’re currently against. How does one make the pitch to this audience?