Political Culture: At Town Halls, Tea and Thuggery

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

Jon Cummings thought the right wing would smooth down its fringe feathers after the ’08 election. Snake eyes on that roll, Jon!

This column needs to begin with an apology to the Secretary of State. Hillary, the primary reason I was unable to support you last year was my belief that your presidency would become mired in the same irrational Republican hatred that hobbled, then crippled your husband’s tenure. I was certain that, between the two of you, only Barack Obama could tame the rabid beast, by virtue of the generational shift he represented and the fact that his last name (however exotic) is not Clinton. I also believed, I freely admit, that his detractors would sense the need to tone down their belligerence and behave with more civility in order to avoid the stench of racism.

Whoops!

As if we needed any more evidence, the events of the last several days leave no question that the Republican Party has removed itself from the mainstream of political discourse. It doesn’t matter who the president is – Obama, or Hillary, or Jesus Christ himself (whom we all know would be backing single-payer). The small minority of Americans who still call themselves Republicans (hovering around 25 percent) have driven into insanity’s ditch, and are spinning their wheels furiously … not to pull themselves out, but to dig in deeper. The orchestrated assaults on town-hall meetings across the nation this week do not – cannot – reflect the GOP as a whole, but they’ve showcased the party’s public face: a tiny, frightened (and frightening) group of people, bought and paid for by special interests, who are hellbent on stifling the nation’s policy debate by hijacking the get-togethers with vicious invective and then shouting down any attempts to move intelligently past their outbursts.

Two weeks ago, when President Obama was asked why he was pushing Congress to finish its work on healthcare legislation before the August recess, he benignly noted that “if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town.” Four days after that recess began for House members, anyone who wasn’t already clued in now knows the real reason his deadline was so important to the Democrats (and why extending it was so important to Republicans like Michael “Slow down, Mr. President” Steele). Obama and Steele both knew that once the congressmen’s planes left Washington, they’d be flying straight into a shitstorm of well-organized lunatics desperate to see them, and Obama himself, fail.

Their “protests” are not really about healthcare. The special-interest groups giving them their marching orders are the same folks who brought you April’s adventures in teabagging – the lobbyist-run Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Patriots. (They’re planning to double-dip the teabags later this month.) And they’re shouting the same talking-points pabulum they sputtered last spring … the same material they’d be using if this summer’s debate were over climate change, or education, or the care and feeding of kittens.

They’ve been cheered on by the House Republican leader, John Boehner, who last week voiced a premonition that Democrats would face a “very, very hot August.” And they’ve been schooled in the art of anti-democratic disruption by a group called Right Principles (tied to FreedomWorks), which explained in a widely distributed “strategy memo” how protesters should proceed:

“1. Artificially Inflate Your Numbers: Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half … The Rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the socialist agenda of Washington.
2. Be Disruptive Early and Often … Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.
3. Try to Rattle Him, Not Have an Intelligent Debate.”

Here’s that plan put into motion, at a town hall meeting held by Rep. Lloyd Doggett in Austin, Texas:

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This is not democracy in action. This is a putsch. It has been designed, organized and funded by narrow interests to thwart the will of the people. And the results, in addition to such displays of sheer petulance inside town-hall meetings from coast to coast, have ranged from a Maryland congressman hung in effigy to a New York representative who needed police to escort him away from a seething mob, to a phoned-in death threat against a representative from North Carolina – not to mention a protester in Connecticut screaming that Sen. Chris Dodd, who recently received a prostate-cancer diagnosis, should be put out of his misery with a “handful” of painkillers “flush(ed) down … with Ted Kennedy’s whiskey.” Hilarious!

The lesson to be taken from this new round of reactionary ranting is not that conservatives are the last bastion of fiscal responsibility – they lost all credibility on that score years ago. Nor is it that, now that they’re thoroughly out of power, they’ve been liberated to indulge their charade that Ayn Rand-approved selfishness is a political philosophy rather than a character flaw.

No, the lesson to be learned is the one that should have been made clear 15 years ago, when the lunatic fringe began accusing Bill Clinton of rape and Hillary of murder – that conservatives, drenched in the bile of their absolutism, believe the reins of power in this country are their birthright. And whenever they are driven from power (1992, 2008) they feel entitled to use all means necessary, from insults to intimidation to outright thuggery, to deny their opponents an opportunity to enact the agenda Americans voted for.

That agenda, as far as healthcare is concerned, was already on the rocks even before this week’s marauders hung out their teabags. The odds of Congress passing some form of legislation this year, which once seemed like such easy pickings, currently seem to stand just over 50/50, and Democrats have already given up more than half the store just to get bills out of committee with some patina of intra-party consensus. It hasn’t helped that Obama turned the sausage-grinding process over to Congress in the first place, rather than put forward his own plan; it also hasn’t helped that individual congressmen have been forced to face the mobs this month without a specific bill to defend. Still, as this week’s steady push toward bipartisan compromise in the Senate Finance Committee shows, the final decisions will be taken in spite of, not as a result of, the chaos of August. The eventual bill will be a dog’s breakfast that doesn’t even include a “public option,” and few (if any) Republicans will vote for it – which means that meaningful reform will remain out of reach as long as Americans continue to accept the notion of healthcare as a profit-making concern rather than an individual right.

In the meantime, the most profound outcome of the town-hall uproar most likely will be a backlash against its perpetrators and a further diminution of the conservative “movement.” However, it’s impossible to deny the potential for these ambushes to escalate into physical violence, either this month or the next time the special interests decide to mobilize some ginned-up outrage. In fact, that threat seemed to escalate this morning when the AFL-CIO promised to send its members to meetings in 50 congressional districts to argue for reform. Should teabagger violence break out — directed at fellow attendees or even a member of Congress — will Boehner, Rush, Fox News and the rest of the vast right-wing conspiracy be chastened … or celebratory?

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