Death panels! Conspiracy theories! Socialist lawmakers and astroturf groups!
Forget the debate over health care — the real political spectacle of August 2009 has been the protesters who have disrupted town hall protests with an especially virulent brand of partisan rancor. As Maureen Dowd put it, Obama’s agenda has been derailed by “ugly scenes of mostly older and white malcontents, disrupting forums where others have come to actually learn something,” with the kinds of outlandish claims that make the Birthers seem downright amateur in comparison.
Everything about politics is designed to kill rational thought. Even at its best, according to the journalist and political observer Timothy Garton Ash, political discourse boils down to a contest of half-truths and sound bites, “in which each party attempts to present part of the truth as if it were the whole.” At its worst, in the words of George Orwell, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Political ads take full advantage of our subconscious, since, with enough repetition, people will remember insinuation and misinformation regardless of its truthfulness. Political “analysts” on TV are typically just partisans who mostly exist in order to state the party line over and over, while giving both sides equal airtime has somehow become the antidote to bias. And just as it’s easier to spend an hour in front of the TV than an hour in the gym, we’ve let ourselves trust partisans, ideologues, or even politicians themselves to give us the unprocessed truth rather than find it out for ourselves.
To me, the most disturbing thing about this particular brand of crankishness is not that they’ve been tricked or duped into “hijacking” a national debate, or that their rhetoric goes beyond the pale of normal political discourse. Sure, it’s absurd to think that cries of “I want my country back” is a constructive response to the healthcare debate, but it’s not that much different from what Howard Dean said in 2004, for example.
Instead, what compels these people to stand up and shout down good-faith political dialog worries me the most. It suggests that they’ve completely and unquestioningly embraced their role as partisan puppets. They buy and wear shirts that say “Proud Member of the Angry Mob.” They rely on professionals to come up with their talking points for them. They disrupt these town halls not because they have anything constructive to offer but because they’re guaranteed the applause of their sympathizers, and the attention of the media — why else would the person who “confronted” Arlen Specter and accused the senator of trampling on the Constitution spend more time looking at the crowd than at Specter himself? Carlos Watson was on to something when he suggested that these protesters are motivated by “thinly veiled hate.” Protesting health care is no longer a protest against just health care.
In other words, The Mob embodies the worst in the political process. Clearly, it thinks that its audience does not consist of the kind of people who think through the merits of an idea. It believes that the best way to kill an idea is to do anything but debate: to scaremonger, to intimidate, to drown out dissent; it strains truth, taste, and credibility, but never the brain power of its audience. It feeds on approval from the like-minded and on any kind of response from the opposition; it is impervious to counter-argument. It is motivated by deep cynicism about the value — which is to say, the political traction — of honest dialogue, and it makes it easy for everyone else to be cynical in return. It is the slow, agonizing death of free thought and reason, even though it flies the banners of individualism, patriotism, and middle-class appeal.
This is nothing new: politics and thinking have never really mixed. The only difference is that members of The Mob advertise this fact, in word, deed, and t-shirt. Am I wrong to think that this is nothing to be proud of — or am I just too far behind contemporary political culture?