Monday, August 24, 2009

Town Hall Meeting Madness

I always thought of town hall meetings as one of the greatest features of New England politics and of American democracy at large (the principle of direct democracy is nothing new of course; it was practiced by the Greeks and has been in use in Switzerland for centuries). They are supposed to be a place for debate, to hold politicians accountable, to express one’s views and to listen to other views.

This summer, however has proved me wrong. Those meetings have been disrupted by people shouting at each other, calling each other names, impugning the integrity of any elected official and not listening to anything that they are told. In fact, if anything, those meetings have worked against democracy by spreading disinformation, fear and rumors. They have shown the worst side of populism.

The worst part I think has been the Nazi comparison.

It is an insult to the millions who actually suffered and died under the Nazi regime and the people who compare Obama to Hitler or the government to Nazism (or even the Soviet Union) should learn a few things about history – and by the way, I felt the same way when left-wing extremists compared Bush to Hitler, although it was much less visible.
The anti-Obama rhetoric started with the “birthers”, and then it was the “deathers”, or “the death panel-ers” – those who believed that the Medicare covering consultations about living wills is a plan to kill the elderly. In most cases, they have been started by corporately funded lobby groups (see here) and partisan Republican strategists (see here for instance) and fueled by politicians (Sarah Palin for one).
The strangest thing is that so many people seemed to actually buy it. But of course, when fear-mongering videos by conservative advocacy groups like 60plus, or the so-called “Citizen for Better Medicare” both fronts for the pharmaceutical industry, are played to seniors, it is easy to understand why it may scare them (older people are easily afraid of change in the first place).

It is the whole concept of town hall meetings that I’m beginning to doubt – at least when it comes to healthcare. Public opinion is so ill informed and shouting and violent disruptions create unease and anxiety. The whole topic of healthcare is a complex one and people often don’t even know their own system. (like when they claim they don’t want to be under socialized medicine because of their fear of the government but are with Medicare and love it.).
In those meetings, it is whoever shouts the loudest that gets the attention, and has the upper-hand not the one who’s right. It also forces the politician talking to take a defensive posture (one against many) and they appear weak which reinforces the impression that they may be lying. It take someone with a strong personality like Barney Frank to not be swayed.

The problem is also that the narrative is framed by the way the media cover the issue and it is up to them –not only Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow – to correct the narrative, talk about the real issues, and putting the whole supposedly angry dissenting reaction into context. Don’t count on foxNews for that of course. They’ll fuel the anger. But the other more credible media should be more aggressive in debunking the myths and the lies.

From watching a few of the Sunday talk-shows yesterday (Meet the Press, or better yet, George Stephanopoulos’s This Week), there is hope and it seems that they are beginning to tackle the core of the issue. It’s about time…..


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