James Madison was right
The mob mentality, dissected on Hardball
James Madison was right
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
If the Founding Fathers could somehow have an inkling of the mob passions on display in the August town halls, they would be spinning in their graves.
Their entire philosophy of representative government was rooted in the knowledge that mobs, by definition, were too irrational and ignorant to be trusted. James Madison himself wrote in the Federalist Papers that the new nation should make it a high priority "to avoid the confusion and intemperance of a multitude. In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason."
In retrospect, of course, their opinion seems a tad elitist - until one beholds the current town hall scenes, with the mobs running wild (catnip for the cable TV networks), circulating the most insipid falsehoods, and applauding fellow mobbers whose vocal assertions about policy and government can most charitably be described (at least by quaint empirical standards) as clueless.
The examples are far too numerous to mention here, although, admittedly, I'm fascinated by the mobber who insisted, during Senator Arlen Specter's Tuesday meeting, that Big Brother intends to use the health care reform bill as an excuse to confiscate family wealth. To wit: “I have a question on page 58 and 59 of this bill, which gives the government access to private individual bank accounts at their free will.” (Huh? What?)
And, for giving aid and comfort to the mobocracy, I'd surely nominate the former half-term governor of Alaska, who recently quit her job so that she could be better positioned to serve up the kind of fact-free sludge that you might normally overhear in the processed foods aisle at Wal-Mart: "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel'" -- priceless stuff, raw meat for the intemperance of the multitude. (And sure enough, an office manager named Laurel Tobias declared at the Specter town hall that the health care reform bill "says plainly right there" that "they are talking about killing people.")
But I'll just focus here on one particular mobber, Katy Abram of Lebanon, Pa., an overnight media sensation who stirred the blood lust of fellow mobbers on Tuesday when she fumed at Specter about what health care reform is really all about: "This is about the dismantling of this country. We don’t want this country to turn into Russia, turning into a socialized country...My question for you is, what are you going to do to restore this country back to what our Founders created, back to the Constitution?" (Founders, you can commence spinning.)
After the town hall event, she was an instant hit on Fox News. She opined, "I know that years down the road, I don’t want my children coming to me and asking me, ‘Mom, why didn’t you do anything? Why do we have to wait in line for, I don’t know, toilet paper or anything?’” (News flash: Obama the socialist wants to regulate your toilette!)
Anyway, Abram made a big mistake last night. She agreed to appear on MSNBC's Hardball, and take questions from guest host Lawrence O'Donnell. He was kind and respectful (he said to her, "I know this is not what you do every day"), but the ensuing exchange was a vivid demonstration of how quickly passion surrenders when confronted by reason. It was not pretty to watch, but it was instructive nonetheless - if only to vindicate James Madison's warning.
She began by complaining about health care reform and other federal government initiatives: "These programs are being funded by me, my husband, my friends, my family. We have a small business. And the amt of taxes we have to pay out on that, it's ridiculous, and yet they want us to pay more. It sounds like they want us to pay more."
O'Donnell then pointed out that Obama's tax hike proposals would only affect families with incomes exceeding $250,000 a year. Does her family make that kind of money?
Answer: "I don't even know. My husband takes care of the bills and everything."
Then she described her family's private health care plan: "I want to be able to keep that choice. I don't want to be forced or slowly coaxed into a single-payer system. I want to have my choice."
In response, O'Donnell reminded her that Obama has repeatedly indicated that, under health care reform, anyone who wants to keep their current private plan would be able to do so. He asked her, "Is that something, when you hear it, you simply don't believe it?"
Answer: "I don't believe it, because I heard him say on a quote, on television, that, you know, it may take five or 10 years, but we will move to a single-player health - "
O'Donnell: "Katy, he has never said that. He has never said we will move to a single-payer plan."
Answer: "I heard it on TV, I heard it on TV, I heard him saying it!"
O'Donnell: "The president of the United States has never said it."
Answer: "This was a couple years ago. It was like in 2002...This was in, it's not since he was in office."
Let's give Katy a hand for caving on that one. Barack Obama voiced support for a single-payer system back in 2002...when he was an Illinois state senator. While running for president, for the better part of two years, he campaigned against a single-payer plan virtually every day. And, in 2009, none of the committee-endorsed congressional bills call for a single-payer system.
Now comes the best part. O'Donnell asked her, "Are your parents on Medicare?"
Answer: "No, but they're very, very close."
O'Donnell: "OK...are they not going to participate in Medicare? Would you tell them 'please don't participate in Medicare because it's a single-payer, government-funded system?' Have you had that conversation with them?"
Answer: "No. We don't talk politics."
O'Donnell soon followed up: "Doesn't that mean you would favor the repeal of Medicare, which is, after all, a single-payer, government-funded health care system, which is socialism...You would want to repeal that, wouldn't you?"
Answer: "I'd hate to have words put in my mouth. I mean, I honestly, you know a lot more - "
O'Donnell then brought up the stuff that she shouted at Specter, about returning the country to what the Founders wanted: "The Founding Fathers didn't anticipate Medicare, so we can repeal that, can't we? In order to get back to what the Founding Fathers would have us do."
Answer: "Yeah, I think a lot of the programs that are in place were not supposed to be here. Um - "
O'Donnell: So we should repeal Social Security as well, since that too is socialism?
Answer: "I'd hate to say yes or no."
You get the idea; rage doesn't look so good when exposed to the rigors of empiricism.
But I was most struck by one particular exchange. Abram had indicated at the town hall that her fight against health care reform marked her debut in the political sphere, at the age of 35. O'Donnell, picking up on that, asked how she "as an adult" could have lived through the contentious Iraq war without paying any attention to politics. (He could have pointed out that the government she so fears has actually been paying out roughly $3 billion each week since 2003 to fight a war that was falsely sold to people like her, thereby indebting the children she invoked.)
So, his question in essence was: If you're so steamed up now about the cost of health care reform for Americans, how could you have not been steamed up about the cost of that war?
Her answer: "Honestly, I didn't really care."
And then this, moments later: "Maybe I'm just not that smart."
Bingo! And the frightening thing is, there are so many mobbers just like her. Where have you gone, James Madison?