Democrats tried to turn around the health-care debate this weekend, with Obama criticizing opponents on his weekly address and Pelosi labeling them "un-American." But Reihan Salam says the protests will only grow.
Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer have harsh words for the protesters who have been turning up at town halls across the country. After highlighting a handful of extreme tactics—in Maryland, protesters hanged a member of Congress in effigy—Pelosi and Hoyer proceeded to accuse the protesters of engaging in “un-American” behavior, perhaps forgetting that the far more extreme tarring and feathering of British officials was a favorite pastime of America’s pro-independence radicals.
Whether the House Democratic leadership likes it or not, the so-called "town brawls" are a sign of things to come. The left has accused conservative activists of manufacturing outrage over President Obama's health-reform efforts. Conservatives in turn have argued that the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Organizing for America and other left-leaning groups have been just as active in rallying their supporters. What is clear is that both sides have had a fairly easy time finding riled-up citizens who are more than happy to wave incendiary signs and scream like banshees. Could this have something to do with the lackluster quality of prime-time television? Mad Men won't be back on until August 16th, and bullying some chump congressperson might be preferable to enduring yet another episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
If Obamacare eventually passes in some form, I'll make you a guarantee: these ferocious protests will keep getting bigger and louder.
Actually, the people who've been raising a ruckus at town halls are not there because they have nothing better to do: they're acting out because they are intensely ideological, and they are eager to fight for their beliefs. Liberals insist that the anti-Obamacare protesters represent an extreme and intemperate minority, and they're absolutely right. But the same was true of those who protested for abolition and women's suffrage and temperance and civil rights for African Americans and for gays and lesbians. I don't believe that Obamacare is a grave evil that should be bitterly opposed, like Jim Crow. Rather, I think it's an ill-conceived mish-mash that will quickly fall apart, leaving the next president to pick up the pieces. If I did think Obamacare was evil, though, I'd angrily attend a dozen town halls, shaking my fists and playing the kazoo at every one. And if Obamacare eventually passes in some form, I'll make you a guarantee: these ferocious protests will keep getting bigger and louder.
To get a glimpse of America’s future, consider France. The French have the health-care system that Americans desperately want: it combines private providers and patient choice with a large and generous public insurance system, one that keeps out-of-pocket costs extremely low for working families. The French system is also dramatically cheaper than our own. But whenever there's a move to tweak the system in some way—say, to gently nudge patients to get the approval of a general practitioner before seeing a specialist—the French go absolutely mad with rage. Doctors go on strike, massive street protests ensue, the riot police come out: it's a crazy scene.
And it makes perfect sense: as more life and death decisions are placed in the hands of democratically elected legislators, politics become more than an occasional nuisance. When your wages are stagnant or your health insurance premiums are zooming skyward, you don't blame your boss or bad luck; instead, you blame the knuckleheads running, or rather ruining, the country. You come to feel as though you can't just wait until the next election: You need to make your voice heard now—even if that means taking to the streets or throwing a punch. We can call the protesters “un-American.” Yet America has gone through long periods of roiling unrest before and it can happen again.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.