The Earth-scorching August firefight over health care has given rise to questions about the point at which stifling civil discussion damages the democratic process.
All across the country, conservative opponents are clamoring to disrupt town-hall meetings about the proposed overhaul of the nation’s health care system, using GOP-generated talking points to shout down Democratic congressmen who attempt to explain the plan.
The Constitution protects their right to speak freely, but Democrats say that they are limiting rather than promoting an open exchange of ideas.
Some experts on political organization say that despite the disruption of Democratic-run events — and divided public feelings on the health care overhaul — the shout-down strategy betrays an essential weakness on the Republican side, not a strength.
Nonetheless, the high-stakes battle has pressed allies of a president who built his narrative around his work as a community organizer into a campaign to delegitimize the organizers of the protests and their means of expression.
“Organized mobs across the country are intimidating lawmakers, disrupting events, and silencing discussions about the change our country needs,” one Obama campaign aide wrote in an e-mail to supporters in Michigan.
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says there is a difference between expressing a point of view and browbeating others — in this case congressmen and their constituents — who seek to express theirs.
“What’s legitimate dissent is something that provides for constructive dialogue in advancing the discussion on health insurance reform,” Sevugan said.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio says the protests reflect the true sentiments of voters.
“Democrats are in denial. Instead of acknowledging the widespread anger millions of Americans are feeling this summer toward Democrat-controlled Washington, Washington Democrats are trying to dismiss it as a fabrication,” Boehner said Wednesday. “That isn’t likely to sit well with Americans outside of Washington who are struggling and wondering when their elected leaders are going to wake up and change course.”
Democrats ignore voter dissatisfaction with the health care overhauls proposed on Capitol Hill at their own peril, Republicans say.
But the nature of the protests suggest the GOP has run out of options for fighting on substance, said David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California-Irvine who wrote The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America.
“In historical context, it’s a tool of the weak,” Meyer said. He said it is noteworthy “that conservatives have to throw this kind of Hail Mary pass to stop health care reform” in a political system that favors that status quo.
Democratic organizers, from time to time, have engaged in protests that could hardly be called constructive. Following the 1989 enactment of a “catastrophic care” law that raised Medicare costs for seniors, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, then a young community organizer in Chicago, watched a group of angry seniors chase then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., out of a senior center, calling him a coward and other names as he sought refuge in his car.
“They got around his car and were shouting rude things and banging, yes banging, on the car,” Schakowsky said.
The law was quickly repealed.
The episode remains the object lesson in what can happen when a lawmaker runs into angry constituents.
Democrats out of touch?
But Schakowsky says the dynamic was much different than today’s protests. In that case, Rostenkowski, who had met with a handful of leaders privately, was trying to duck out of the senior center on Milwaukee Avenue without meeting with the larger group of his constituents.
Though they were angry, the seniors were trying to express their opinions to their congressman, who was actively trying to avoid them.
“Their goal is not to have a conversation,” Schakowsky said of the contemporary town-hall protesters, who have been encouraged by conservative interest groups.
In the current health care debate, Democrats have portrayed the interest groups and the Republican Party as the source of the discontent, citing reports of involvement by former House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey’s FreedomWorks.
Republicans say there is a wave of Americans who oppose the Democratic-led House’s approach to health care.
“Here’s some free advice for the Democrats: When you are attacking the voters, you are losing,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said in an e-mail to reporters Wednesday. “Democrats in Washington have become so desperate to climb their way out of message quicksand that they have been reduced to casting the voters and even members of their own party as extremists for having the audacity to oppose a government takeover of health care.”
Meyer says Republicans should be careful not to get too close to the protest movement lest they get hit with the backlash if demonstrators are out of control
“This is now going to be a potential problem for Republicans who have to take responsibility for the actions of the people they get excited and engaged about this type of politics,” Meyer said.
But he also said “irony is abundant” in the role-reversal for the community-organizer in chief. “It’s going to be interesting to see how the community organizer president is going to respond to communities organized by his political opponents.”