Feature

The health-care debate: Sound, fury—signifying … what?

Democrats knew that it would be tough to sell President Obama’s proposals to reform the health-care system to their constituents, but the frenzied town hall–style meetings are something else altogether.

In Florida, Rep. Kathy Castor was shouted down with cries of “Tyranny! Tyranny! Tyranny!” as protesters pounded on doors and pushed and shoved other audience members. In Texas, a protester confronted another Democratic congressman, Lloyd Doggett, with a mock tombstone bearing his name. In Maryland, U.S. Rep. Frank Kratovil was hung in effigy. When Congress adjourned last week for the month of August, said Ian Urbina in The New York Times, Democrats knew that it would be tough to sell President Obama’s proposals to reform the health-care system to the folks back home. But the frenzied free-for-alls that have greeted them at town hall–style meetings across the country—complete with “fistfights, arrests, and hospitalizations”—are something else altogether. Opponents who jam the meetings are insisting that “reform” is a Trojan horse for a Marxist/fascist takeover of both medicine and the country, and are displaying posters depicting Obama with a Hitler moustache. Outside Obama’s town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., this week, said Joan Walsh in Salon.com, one demonstrator openly displayed a pistol and carried a placard that quoted from Thomas Jefferson’s famous adage, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” How’s that for chilling?

This backlash was inevitable, said Monica Crowley in The Washington Times. For months, Americans have been pushing back against Obama’s grandiose attempts to nationalize their health care. But self-righteous Democrats ignored the public’s will, preferring to misinterpret “their 2008 election victory as a mandate to push through liberalism on a grand scale.” Only now that “the depth and intensity of the dissent” have exploded are Democrats paying attention. Still, their arrogance is undiminished, said Rich Lowry in National Review Online. The Democratic National Committee has dismissed the uprisings as “angry mobs of a small number of rabid right-wing extremists,” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says they constitute “un-American” behavior. Apparently, Democrats think community organizers are patriots only when they protest the Iraq war or camp outside George W. Bush’s ranch.

But who’s doing the organizing here? said Errol Louis in the New York Daily News. In many cases, these so-called grass-roots activists are being organized by Washington “lobbyists and public-relations firms doing the bidding of insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms, and other vested interests.” One such outfit, FreedomWorks, run by former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is issuing memos detailing how to act at town hall meetings. Among the pointers: “Be Disruptive Early and Often” and “Try to Rattle Him, Not Have an Intelligent Debate.” And what does this sort of thuggery say about public sentiment on health-care reform? Not much, said Steve Kornacki in The New York Observer. In 2000, Ralph Nader staged a series of “super-rallies” in which he filled 15,000-seat stadiums with supporters brimming with righteous outrage. Then he got 2.7 percent of the vote. The shouters who are packing into town hall meetings speak for only a small minority of the population—the Republican Party’s hardened, paranoid base.

But even if this is just a minority, said Joe Conason in Salon.com, the depth of the mobs’ rage is genuinely frightening. Whipped up by right-wing “talk jocks and kooks,” they actually believe that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim plotting to persecute white folks, institute socialized medicine, and condemn senior citizens to death. Down this road, great peril lies. From here, it’s only a short step to “another tragedy like the Oklahoma City bombing”—or worse.

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