I am frustrated with the deepening madness at health care reform town hall meetings. In an effort to contextualize these events I’m offering a short syllabus that may help us understand the current state of public discourse on health care reform.
James Madison’s The Federalist #10
Now is a good time to revisit Federalist #10 where Madison takes up the issue of factions and the danger they pose to responsible policy making in a democracy. Madison surely would have reminded President Obama and congressional Democrats that town hall-style, direct democracy is a breeding ground for faction-led mischief.
Madison writes, "The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished."
Like most of the founding fathers, Madison was suspicious of popular control of policy making. He worried about the balance between responsive and responsible government. But despite his anxieties Madison insists that we cannot limit freedom, nor ignore multiple viewpoints. The goal is not to silence dissent, but to control the potentially tyrannical effects of factions. Madison believed that responsible representatives, held accountable by periodic elections were the best safeguards against the worst effects of factions. Members of Congress need to rely on Madison’s vision rather than giving into pressure tactics of a rowdy faction.
Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic
Professor Stenner was one of my dissertation advisers when I was earning my PhD at Duke University. I worked as a research assistant gathering data for this insightful text. Witnessing the fear and anger of health care reform opponents immediately reminded me of Stenner’s work.
Building on research begun by Theodore Adorno and extended by Robert Altemeyer, Stenner’s text offers a comprehensive and systematic examination of the link between authoritarian personalities and expressions of moral, political, and racial intolerance.
Fear of change and discomfort with divergent opinions tend to activate latent authoritarian impulses for some individuals. Uncomfortable with a world that is changing, diverse, and seemingly beyond their control, these citizens can become aggressively intolerant. Stenner’s research is a crystal ball that predicts the town hall protests were a likely resulting from President Obama’s trumpeting a theme of "Change."
Ida B. Wells’ The Red Record
Ida B. Wells was one of America’s first investigative journalists. In 1895 the young Wells asked a compelling and dangerous question: what is the cause of lynching?
Brutal violence against African Americans in the South was widely justified as acceptable punishment for black men’s sexual aggression against white women. In 1892 three friends of Wells were lynched by a white mob. The mob was angry about the men’s financial success as owners of a grocery store that successfully competed with one owned by white men. In A Red Record Wells painstakingly collects and presents evidence challenging the rhetoric of black male sexual violence. She discovers that rape was rarely the true motive for lynching. Instead, black men were tortured and murdered when they dared to seek economic, personal, or political equality.
Wells’ work is a reminder that the highest calling of investigative journalism is to provide evidence against false justifications that underlie violent ideologies. The crowds at health care reform town hall meetings are enraged and armed. Many are spurred on by a belief that their families, their futures, and their way of life are being threatened. Many hold patently false beliefs about the facts of pending health care reform legislation.
We need our own Ida B. Wells with the moral courage to unflinchingly reveal these lies.
Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card
In contemporary political discourse far too many commentators refer to "the race card" as though it were a debit card issued to black people at birth that African Americans then use to provoke white racial guilt and thereby obtain unfair advantages.
Mendelberg’s text is a reminder that "the race card" is a purposeful strategy employed by political parties, candidates, and interest groups in order to manipulate white voters into acting against their own economic and political interests.
The current opposition to health care reform has all the hallmarks of a "race card" campaign. There is no question that the health insurance lobby would have mobilized against any president, black or white, who introduced reform. But in this case entrenched insurance interests, some conservative spokespersons, and some members of the GOP are using racial code words, stoking racial anxiety, and introducing race into a race-neutral issue to serve their own purposes. Mendelberg’s book demonstrates the frightening effectiveness of these strategies over the past thirty years.
James Cone’s God of the Oppressed
In this text James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, develops a systematic theology rooted in the claim that the Bible demonstrates God’s preferential option for the poor. At a time when so many on the Christian right have hijacked religious language in service of the free market, Cone’s text reminds us that Christianity is built on a moral imperative to care for society’s most vulnerable.
Cone’s theology implies that health care reform should be at the center of the so-called values voting agenda.
Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar’s Going Negative
Anyone who wonders why health care reform opponents have ditched reasoned debate for unruly shouting matches needs to read this book. Ansolabehere and Iyengar offer compelling evidence that negative campaigning shrinks and polarizes the American electorate.
The opposition gains an important strategic advantage by "going negative." Moderate and undecided voters will find themselves distressed, discouraged and confused by the town hall shouting matches and will tune out of the debate altogether. Through intense tactics of negativity the Right can marginalize and silence the majority of Americans who support and need health care reform.
Kelly Dipucchio’s Grace for President
As the mom of a seven-year-old I read a lot of children’s books and find many instructive lessons there. During the 2008 election my daughter and I fell in love with Dipucchio’s Grace for President.
The story follows a grade school election prompted when Grace, a young black girl, discovers there have never been any "girl presidents." The book demonstrates the power of identity based voting as the girls all support Grace and the boys all support her opponent, Thomas. In the end, however, a young white boy representing "the equality state of Wyoming" casts his 3 electoral votes for Grace Campbell because she "is the best person for the job."
My daughter and I always cheer at the end of this book which promises that as Americans we are able to see past our differences and make the best choices. These days we could all use a little Grace.