“For almost two hundred years, the policy of this nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.” — Richard Nixon, in a national address on Nov. 3, 1969.
This is what is currently at stake in our health-care debate. Our democracy cannot function if anarchy wins out. I do not think that our nation can survive when the response to an open call for dissent is met with vociferous and even violent diatribes. When members of Congress and presidents go to the people for their opinions, there is no need to shout. There is no need to protest, because the powers that be have already prepared a forum for debate. This is not analogous to the antiwar protests of 1968 or 2003. In each case, dissent was repressed and the government sought to avoid confrontation and debate.
Yet in 2009, open calls for debate and dissent are met with anger and fear. This is not dissent. This is not debate. We are currently witnessing the bullying of reasonable debate out of the political arena. We are currently allowing the forcefulness of an argument to stand in for the reasonableness of the argument. We are currently derelict in our duty to preserve the dignity of political discourse that is necessary in a healthy democracy.
We’re not talking about health-care reform itself
And so, with public rancor reaching a fever pitch and with old lines being drawn in the sand, it would seem that the debate over the future of health-care reform in the United States has failed. Knee-jerk journalism would have us believe that it has failed because Congress is acting too slowly or too quickly. Or perhaps the Democrats are fractured and cannot stay on message. Then again, maybe President Obama ought to cut Republicans out of the discussion altogether. Indeed, it seems the only thing that we are not talking about is health-care reform itself.
The reports of the demise of health-care reform have been greatly exaggerated, simply because the debate has not failed — yet. Congress still must create a finished bill and put it to a vote, followed by the president’s own input. I say again, the debate over health-care reform has not failed yet.
But failure is the goal of those many who have taken over town-hall meetings with the volume of their voices rather than with the truth of their arguments. In July, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said, “If we’re able to stop Obama on (health-care reform) it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” There is no mention of the validity of opposing health-care reform, nor is their mention of whether Obama has anything good to offer.
The goal: obstruction
Smith clearly states his goal as obstruction. He voiced his goal clearly when he predicted that “Senators and Congressmen will come back in September afraid to vote against the American people.”
Which brings us to the method of obstruction: distraction. The Rush Limbaughs of the world want to make the debate into a circus, a sideshow that has nothing to do with facts. And so misinformation seeps its way into the mainstream, becoming legitimized as congressmen and -women feel the need to respond to allegations that they will “pull the plug on grandma.” The debate shifts. No longer do talking heads banter about the competing goods of single-payer systems vs. a public option. Instead, they ask us how we feel about the protests and opine whether carrying an M16 to a town hall is constitutionally sound.
Of course these are all fine debates to have. But we must not have them at the expense of the debate on health-care reform. Indeed, we must be sure that we do not substitute the din and cacophony created by tangential arguments and demonstrations. By encouraging these demonstrations, Sen. DeMint and his fellow Republicans can claim success in oppressing the democratic function of debate at these town-hall meetings.
Remember the real question
My hope is that those same elected officials who were shouted down in their town halls are level-headed enough to examine the claims presented before them. The goal is not to assuage pro-reform or anti-reform voting blocs. Rather, we must remember that currently the great question is: How can we ensure a functional and sustainable American health-care system? To do so, we must ignore the vocal and disruptive minority that does not wish to participate in the discussion at hand.
In large part, we have already decided that we are pro-health-care reform. We, as a nation, elected a president who campaigned on a clear platform in which health-care reform was a centerpiece. We are free to debate the semantics of the proposed bill. But we will do much better to debate the issue at hand instead of whether carrying assault weapons can be perceived as an exercise of free speech.
Ultimately, I beseech us all to remember that, after all, this is a democracy. If things do not turn out the way Americans want, everyone retains the right to show their frustration as every American has a right to: at the voting booth.
Kellen Hoxworth, of Mahtomedi, is a director of theater and has recently worked on productions of “Hamlet” and “Mother Courage and Her Children.”