Angry mobs invading public meetings, shouting down speakers, assaulting attendees, using circulated instructions on tactical disruption (“spread yourself around the hall … don’t engage in debate … make sure the speaker can’t be heard”). Some sleazy Latin American populist push? No, it’s north of the border, where Republican mobs have turned thuggish and violent in their attempt to break up “town hall” meetings organised to discuss health care reform in the US.
Most of these groups are what US politicians call “astroturf” — i.e. a false grassroots, local Republican operatives, or a literal rent-a-crowd paid by lobby groups, to pretend to be angry concerned citizens. Some of them are that, but it doesn’t matter — the town hall meetings are set up as open forums to debate the health care issue. Shouting them down, or making them unworkable is simply anti-democratic, and genuinely at the outer edges of fascistic.
Your correspondent has never been comfortable with this when it occurs on the left, and the liberal left in America should be unequivocal in denouncing not only the thugs perpetrating this stuff, but those on the right unwilling to condemn it*.
Are they doing it? Nuh-uh. Check out Huffington Post, and other liberal sites, and you’ll see American liberals doing what they love best — analysing things in terms of race, sitting around treating their enemy as a set of symptoms of social malaise, misinformation etc etc, anything to avoid actual contestation and conflict, which is what politics is.
It doesn’t matter that the crowd are mostly astroturf — nor does it matter that a lot of them are simply shrieking with anger because they have a black President, though they are. What matters is whether civil debate is being destroyed by violence and intimidation, and getting on the side of free speech and against the thugs.
The greatest failure here is the President’s. Obama has retreated into the same position he took this time last year, when John McCain was starting to overtake him with relentlessly aggressive and punchy politics. The retrospective construction of this was that it was an example of “no-drama Obama”, moving gracefully towards victory. Bollox it was — it was Obama flummoxed by the populist appeal of McCain to a huge tranche of American voters. The signal moment was Obama’s frustration with the fun McCain made of Obama’s suggestion that properly inflating your tyres would save as much petrol as could be generated by reviving US offshore drilling.
“Even the automobile association says that’s true,” Obama told an audience shaking his head, “these people like being stupid.”
Yeah they do — because support for offshore drilling was purely symbolic, a testament to the US idea of dominating the earth, making it serve you. The idea of kneeling down to pump up your tyres was a picture of self-submission, that thing Europeans do with their bicycles. Hell, we’re America — we’ll drive on our goddam rims if we want to!
Obama’s demeanour then reminded me exactly of befuddled academics, faced with year on year budget cuts, suddenly realising that they have to fight for and argue their case for public funding in the public funding. They shake their heads in disbelief at the stupidity of the people they have to kowtow to — can’t they see how much more important our work is? Just let us get on with it!
Obama shows every sign of displaying the same impatience. After a year of campaigning to get the job — including six months of primaries where he had to adopt an oracular personality that was most people’s first introduction to him, but which was quite unlike his baseline personal style — it looks like he can’t believe he has to keep campaigning for his policies. “Just let me get on with it,” he is reported to have told a bunch of Republicans he’d persuaded to assist in the health-care push, as part of his effort at bipartisanship.
That bipartisanship has generated dividends in getting an actual health care bill closer to getting up than anything that’s come before, but the cost has been huge in terms of its basic provisions — no PBS-equivalent to stop Big Pharma setting huge prices, no use of Medicare (the public fund for 65+ Americans) to set baseline insurance charges.
Now, Dick Durbin**, a “liberal” Democrat, has declared himself open to the “non-public” option — i.e. no public health care provider in the mix, available to all Americans who want to use it (on a fee basis), as competition to the private insurance industry. Instead, Durbin is leaning towards the co-ops model — arm’s-length non-profits as a way of getting the 100 million un- or underinsured Americans some decent cover. Maybe it’s a ploy, or maybe the whole thing has all but fallen apart.
Given the supreme difficulties in the way of getting through a vote in both houses, you can see the need to give significant things away. Politically, the important thing is to get twenty or so million Americans insured for the first time in their lives and worry about the cost blowout later. That then leaves the Republicans with the unappetising task of de-insuring people, and gives the Democrats a whole extension of their political base. Part of Obama’s low key approach to date has been a disciplined attempt to keep the thing from becoming a culture war — to allow the Blue Dog Democrats and moderate Republicans wiggle room to support the bill without being seen to be allying with a black man yelling about the “universal right to health care”.
The Democrats would have to be suicidal to allow that to happen–– but deep Blue Dogs like Senator Ben Nelson in Nebraska are effectively Independents. The party knows that if there’s too much pressure on them, they’ll simply switch to the Republicans, taking half the state’s Democrat votes with them. The possibility of some grand and catastrophic double-cross cannot be ruled out.
That would blow a deep hole in the Obama presidency — worse in a way than the Clintons’ failure on healthcare, which was a clearer push by the executive of a take it or leave it option to the legislature (they left it). It would be all the more bitter to swallow given that — as Howard Dean has pointed out — the whole bill could be put through as part of the “reconciliation” (i.e. budget) process, where only a simple majority in the Senate is required, a vote the Democrat core has handily. But that would have buried the process as half a dozen separate initiatives, without any core legislative achievement to point to. Obama wants a health-care bill he can claim as his own.
And that’s where the NUBO rule comes in.*** The seas are rough at the moment, but the passage of a health care bill, and the gradual realisation that it was making a difference to people’s lives and bottom-lines would be a powerful accumulator moving towards 2012. In that sense Obama is holding steady to a political task that Carter never got to, and Clinton abandoned after one go.
But God man, lead from the front. Be out there every morning at a press conference, denouncing the town hall disruptors as “un-Americans” whom every believer in democracy and debate should be ashamed of. When Sarah Palin says that Obama’s plan would have killed her down syndrome baby, denounce her as a disgusting user of her child’s condition to spread lies.
Maybe then, with some political leadership, supine American left-liberals would stop blogging and making DVD-release documentaries about each other long enough to go to toe-to-toe with the thugs. Jesus, these people. They’re either operators invested in the permanent liberal political establishment, or fey college grads on Zoloft and food-exclusion diets twittering about Darfur and crowdsourcing, or bitter old new leftists a la Counterpunch, so jaundiced about Obama that they won’t even turn out when the basic conditions of civil life are being threatened. Even reliably forthright unions like the SEIU haven’t been stumping up a force to basically defend people’s right to speak.
‘Fwere me, I’d turn up to a town hall with twenty burly guys and gals in matching “town hall defender” t-shirts***, pick off and physically throw out anyone who was obviously trying to make a meeting unworkable. You’d only need to do it in one place, and it would go viral from news reports, and the Zoloft-and-soy crowd tweetdecking it from Wi-Fi juice bars.
“The Democratic Party will not get in a street-fight to win the Presidency,” Warren Christopher, epitome of the liberal establishment, said at the time of the 2000 Florida recount. They didn’t and they didn’t. Unlike the tango, it doesn’t take two to start a street-fight. If the other guy decides that’s what it is, then that’s what it is, and you better get in it to win it. Labour groups and the left should be able to win these things with less violence — indeed by restoring order — because we’re better organised and more disciplined than the right-wing crazies. But only if we turn up. Even the impressively organised “Alliance For America” is so kum-bay-yah they can’t seem to conceive of a process that doesn’t involve people “telling their stories” over cups of rescue remedy tea.
Mind you, it’s quite possible that more is happening on the ground in the US than can be told from the reports. But when you look at these grinning thugs, the proverbial worst, full of passionate intensity, waving swastikas and lynched effigies, as town-hall attendees stand around gormless, you have to wonder once again what happened to the American liberal-left, what complex of social transformation, identity politics, residual puritan influence, absence of a political wing of the labour movement, and much more, turned them into such diffident pussies. Subject for a dissertation — which no doubt hundreds are writing, instead of organising a pushback against the thugs.
Could be totally missing the pushback. Fair warning. Could be totally. Don’t think I am, but I could be. So we’ll see.
May I say in closing, nyarrggghhhhhh. Gak. Mugurk. And add. Nyarrrgghhh.
*Civil disobedience and insurrection towards corporate, military or state power is quite a different matter.
**Not a slang term for a condom — “mate if you don’t put your dick turban on, you’ll get santorum all over yourself”. Or santosantoro, as the substance is called in Australia. (santorum? Wikipedia it).
***Never Underestimate Barack Obama. Keep up or you’ll never pass the exam.
****Not the pathetic “Bill and Ben” t-shirts the union movement got dolled up in so that Julia Gillard could tear them a new arsehole while they sat there and took it like the teary little porcelain kittens they are at the moment.