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Commentary: Preparing for a political season of discontent, anger

A throng of demonstrators clustered on the sidewalk along the north side of Broward Boulevard, waving their signs, clamoring for attention from the passing motorists.

It’s going to take a mighty clamor, in 2012, to get your political message noticed.

“Excuse me, sir,” I asked, stopping a man in business attire on the other side of the street. He had been hurrying down the sidewalk holding a Subway sandwich bag in one hand, his iPhone in the other. “Do you know why those people are demonstrating?”

He looked up from his smartphone, a little dazed by an interruption from outside his digital universe, and took a begrudging glance across seven lanes of traffic. He shrugged. “Tea Party crazies. They come on Fridays.”

Not quite. Tea Party demonstrators regularly occupy this stretch of sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, but not this Friday. Occupy Fort Lauderdale also staged a few leftie protests there before fading away. In April, a crowd gathered on that same stretch of sidewalk to protest “the Republican war on women.”

From across the busy boulevard, this particular bunch certainly had a Tea Party look about them, with the ubiquitous American flags and anti-Obama placards, a woman all decked out as Betsy Ross, but their message was more precisely calibrated. Dozens held blue-and-white signs imploring the motorists speeding by to “Stand up for Religious Freedom.” Others held placards demanding “Stop Obama HHS Mandate.” Not a slogan easily processed in the 10 seconds or so it takes to drive past the city’s protest corner.

The focus, on this particular Friday, was against the mandate requiring employer-provided insurance companies, including those insuring employees of religious institutions, to pay for birth control. This is a very big issue within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, despite surveys that indicate that an overwhelming majority of Catholic parishioners, at one time or another, pop the forbidden pill. From across the street, the characterization of an insurance mandate for a drug ingested by 98 percent of Catholic women as “Obama’s war on religion” could sound, to non-Catholic ears, a lot like hyperbole.

Yet there they were on a muggy Friday, between 200 and 300 people waving their placards, shouting, getting the occasional car honk of encouragement from passing motorists, while two policemen on horseback watched over an unrowdy gathering. A large banner demanded: “Repeal Socialist Obamacare,” though the official Catholic position on government-provided health care is not that simple. It’s this mandate thing that they oppose, not the extension of healthcare to the uninsured masses.

The archly political archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, told the crowd that the mandate was “an unprecedented intrusion into religious groups and consciences of religious people.”

It was hard not to notice that many of the demonstrators cheering Wenski seemed to be of an age when contraceptives were no longer an issue, at least in their personal lives. However, a group of high school kids from the campus ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas High School lowered the average age, showing up in their school uniforms. Sabrina Pimentel told me that she and her classmates had been promised two hours of community service hours for every hour they put in with the demonstration. That might raise certain philosophical questions about the worth the church confers on political activism compared to the mundane half-as-valuable, like volunteering at a homeless shelter. But if you want kids up before noon on a hot day during the first week of their summer vacation to rally for an edict to which few church members actually adhere, the formula calls for doubling the service hours.

Tea Party demonstrators who’ve gathered on this corner have had an easier message to convey. They oppose all things Obama, with no subtleties. They’re against coddling illegal immigrants or social programs for the poor. They regard their guns like religious icons. None of these notions are embraced by the Catholic Church. The demonstrators on this particular Friday were trying to peddle a nuanced message, but political nuance is bound to get lost in the Babel of 2012.

The gubernatorial recall election held last week in Wisconsin offered a furious preview of what’s coming this summer and fall for the rest of the country. The ruckus was overwhelming. Between $60 million and $80 million — money enough to run a presidential campaign a decade ago — was spent, mostly by outside groups, mostly to besmirch one candidate or the other. The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission has let loose an avalanche of corporate money. And all that money, transformed into nasty attack ads, is about to inundate us.

The political noise over these next five months will be like nothing before in American history, an incessant head-pounding barrage of mindless negativity and underhanded advertising blaring from your televisions, packing your mailboxes, interrupting your evening with robocalls.

By November, our collective heads will be ready to explode. The only surviving sentiment will be anger. Voting, by Election Day, will become less about democracy and more about retribution.

We’re in for a political season of unrelenting discord. Knowing that, it seemed a little disquieting on Friday to see a church known for its compassion and social outreach lead its parishioners into the low-down muck and fray.

The Catholic message, of course, was much more nuanced than that of the angry political combatants who usually occupy that corner. But from across seven lanes of traffic, it was hard to tell the difference.