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."