The “debate” surrounding health care reform has caught almost everyone's attention. The vocal opponents of health care have been variously described as a “mob”, “un-American, and even “brownshirts.” This isn't just anyone saying this, but it is (in order), arguably the leading progressive columnist (Krugman), the #1 and #2 Democratic leaders in the House, and a U.S. Congressperson. The hostility and animosity expressed during these demonstratiosn including firearms being brought to events or Sarah Palin saying that a “death panel” would euthanize her son because he has Down's Syndrome (before, gallantly calling for civility) is becoming downright scary, including the actual death threats against sitting members of Congress. But, to have the kind of people calling out opponents of health care as un-American or comparing them to fascists is downright wrong.
Although I disagree with the tactics used by those who oppose health care reform, Andrew got me thinking about what it means to denounce them. Very thoughtfully, he reminded me that the sort of “deliberative debate” that I would prefer
imply a particular kind of deliberative democratic subject:
- One who is calm, considered, rational, and deliberative. This worries me because it implies that emotion is an illegitimate way of engaging in politics. That, in turn, privileges particular kinds of people, and kinds of discourses, as a matter of form.
He is right to point out that many people, often those who I care about greatly and support, use these tactics. I have been to labor protests where the rules of civility were thrown out the window because civility favored management. Disruption hit the financial bottom line and forced the managers, who were hiding behind this cloak of civility, to take notice. There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with these protests as a tactic and, certainly nothing un-American or fascist about them (leaving any violence—real or implied—aside). Americans have a right to redress their grievances to their government; nothing ever said that the government had to like the way that citizens chose to carry out this redress.
This reminded me of a really influential passage in the book Urban Fortunes by John Logan and Harvey Molotch. The book describes the process of urban land development, providing an interesting synthesis between traditional neo-classical and human ecological models of urban growth and Marxian models of economic growth. One of their main points throughout the book is that:
The traditional academic literature on the topic tends to equate “community organization” with progressive social forces generally and to see all such groups as analytically equivalent because they are from the “grass roots” and help “empower” local people.
They go on to point out that many local organizations (their interest is in understanding the forces guiding urban development) are indeed not progressive. One can look back in history to local community forces that were, indeed, not so progressive such as the northern white block clubs that tried to maintain the starkly segregated residential color line.
I have seen the argument that there is a difference because these protests are “astroturffed”, insta-activism bought by the insurance lobby. Although it seems to be funded by the insurance lobby, I also have a hard time believing that all of these activists are bought off. I also don't think, as Paul Krugman suggests, that “the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the ‘birther’ movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.” Granted, many of the birthers are probably among the crowds, but to say that this is all about Obama's race or that the tactics are somehow un-American denies the reality that there is a substantial opposition to health care reform. I don't think that it is the result of deep-seated hatred (though, for some, this is undoubtedly the case), but is likely a fear and mistrust of the government that has a real basis in reality.
The answer to this is not to disparage and insult those who are protesting, to question their patriotism (remember the “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers). It is to organize an opposition, including some who might simply be confused or nervous about changes and have real concerns about government-run programs. I'm not tilting at windmills; I don't believe that one will ever convince most of the people shouting at town halls and I think that it would be futile to do so. But there are lots of people, I would guess, who are hearing some of their concerns echoed by the vocal protesters and who see that people—fellow citizens—really care about opposing this bill. Without effective organizing to counter-act this movement and inoculation against the opposition's talking points health reform is unlikely to succeed. Reformers have the advantage is that there are many in the reform movement, including the President himself, who have learned how to build an effective organizing base from which to enact reform. If this truly is an astroturf campaign, then real organizing (with time) should be able to overcome it. I just hope that he remembers that is how he got to have the meteoric rise from a state senator to President in less than a decade and that he calls some of those advisors up to help rather than those he keeps finding from inside the Beltway.