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Why Americans are so angry

From 'tea party' protesters to antiwar advocates, Americans on all sides of the political spectrum seem angry about something. But for all the tumult, the disaffection today is far less than in many periods in the past.

By / Staff writer / March 8, 2010

Protesters, unhappy about executive bonuses, bellowed at people looking out the windows of an American International Group office building in New York last April.

Jason Decrow/AP

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Heather Gass always felt she had to suppress her conservative views, living as she did in the liberal San Francisco Bay area. A year ago that all changed.

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CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli had just blasted the Obama administration's plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure, and called for a "tea party" protest in Chicago. The idea caught fire around the country, and soon Ms. Gass, a 40-something real estate agent, was organizing weekly street-corner demonstrations in her hometown of Orinda, Calif.

Her focus was fiscal discipline, aimed not just at the $75 billion mortgage bailout but also the administration's $787 billion stimulus package and President Obama's budget. She remembers her first signs well: "Stop printing money" and "China owns us." By Congress's summer recess, when opposition to Mr. Obama's healthcare plan burst forth, she had 100 people protesting on street corners, she says.

Fast-forward to February 2010. Gass is still out there every Friday, her 6-year-old son in tow. Political operatives are calling her up for advice. Her roster of influential tea party activists – "Heather's list," as local politicos call it – is creating buzz. "We're not dangerous," says Gass. "We're your neighbors. But we've been underground. We're not underground anymore."

Gass says she's beyond anger over the direction of the country and is in "action mode." Whatever it's called, that intensity of feeling – the passion that led her to travel last month to the Tea Party Convention in Nashville and that drives her to tears when she worries out loud about the America her son's generation will inherit – is unmistakable.

Heather Gasses exist all around the country, ordinary American conservatives who are fed up and leading the charge. There's frustration on the left, too – aimed not only at the Republican Party, for hindering Obama's agenda, but also at Wall Street and its "no-limits-casino banking culture," as liberal blogger Arianna Huffington writes on her Huffington Post website.

She and other leaders on the populist left, such as the Rev. Jim Wallis, are urging people to move their money from "too big to fail" banks into community banks.

There's also disaffection among moderates, frustrated by the high degree of political polarization that leaves little room for compromise on major policy matters. But efforts in the last decade to build a "radical middle" movement – a drive to marry the best ideas of the right and left – seem to have faded.

The stunning decision by Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana, one of the Senate's few moderates, not to run for reelection cast the hollowing-out of the middle in sharp relief.