The new tradition of town hall thuggery
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
I was in college when I first witnessed goon squads in action. Back in those distant days, left-wing radicals would storm into the auditorium and shout down conservative speakers with whom they disagreed. These assaults on free speech occurred all the time. Far more recently, in the autumn of 2003, I covered a Democratic rally in Los Angeles and found myself surrounded by screaming left-wing protesters who were determined to disrupt my street interview with Duff Sundheim, the California chairman of the Republican party. He had come to the rally to offer another point of view, and I wanted to get it into my notes. I wound up yelling back at the protesters and defending the Republican chairman's right to be heard. Sundheim was so startled at my outburst that he said to me, "Hey, man, I owe you a beer."
Lately, however, the angry right appears to have cornered the market on anti-democratic thuggery. The incidents mount with each passing day. With aid and encouragement from fake-grassroots corporate lobbying outfits, as well as from the Republican party, are making a mockery of the American town hall tradition. The way things normally work, congressmen on recess meet with constituents and engage in two-way dialogue; the way things have worked lately, choleric conservative citizens engage in a one-way dialogue, shouting down the congressmen and basically trashing the democratic format - not caring a damn for the fellow citizens in attendance who might actually be interested in hearing about the health care reform effort, however flawed it may be.
The right-wingers who drowned out congressman Lloyd Doggett in Texas, who shouted down congressman Tim Bishop on Long Island, who screamed insults at congressman John Dingell in Michigan, who forced congresswoman Kathy Castor to cut short her meeting in Florida, who heckled and harassed congressman Steve Kagen in Wisconsin, who shouted down congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona so severely that she had to cancel the event during its opening minutes...these are people who actually think they are standing up for America, when, in truth, they are subverting the American tradition of free speech. Worse yet, sometimes they have no idea what they're talking about. At one Texas town hall meeting, the vocal protesters ranted against all forms of "socialized or government-run health care," yet when congressman Gene Green asked how many were Medicare recipients, half the hands went up.
Fear and ignorance is rampant, as always. What's noteworthy is how brilliantly that fear and ignorance is being harnessed by the corporate and political forces that have a big stake in the status quo. Witness, for instance, the organizational efforts of lobbyist-run Washington groups such as Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks (one of the FreedomWorks volunteers wrote the now-infamous memo that advises the goons to "rock the boat early...watch for an opportunity to yell out...the goal is to rattle him").
But my favorite is the faux-grassroots group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which, as it turns out, is run by Rick Scott, the former boss of a for-profit hospital chain who lost his job during a fraud probe that ultimately forced the chain to plead guilty to serious charges of overbilling and to pay $1.7 billion in fines. (Scott's group had publicized the Arizona town hall that had to be shelved during the opening minutes.)
Then we have the handiwork of the Republican party. The latest worthless remark by national chairman Michael Steele came in reference to a query this week about whether the GOP was encouraging or condoning the goon behavior. Absolutely not, said the chairman, "that’s not something deliberately coordinated by me or any one state party."
Actually, the Connecticut Republican party has been listing the times and dates of town halls. The Texas Republican party posted video of Lloyd Doggett's chaotic event, with nary a word of condemnation for the goon behavior. The Hillsborough County Republican party in Florida sent out emails encouraging people to pack the Kathy Castor event, and offered talking points (right-wing talk host Glenn Beck also publicized the event).
Then there are the Republican partisans who show up on false pretenses. At the Kagen event in Wisconsin, a vocal woman named Heather Bliss insisted that she was "just a mom from a few blocks away." A local TV affiliate (to its credit) decided to fact-check her claim. It turns out that, as recently as last year, "just a mom" Bliss was the vice chairwoman of the county Republican party, with ties to the Republican National Committee.
Obviously, there are legitimate grounds for questioning many aspects of the Democratic health reform effort, and not all town hall dissidents should be lumped with the goons. But it is nevertheless chilling to hear Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee, declare that the days of civil town halls are "now over," while offering nary a rebuke to those who exhibit anti-democratic behavior. Nor should we expect him to. The Republican strategy is not to find the best road to health care reform via a two-way dialogue; it's about breaking Barack Obama and regaining power - and the goon squads are very useful.