Health Care Reform Disruptions Help Nothing

It’s a sad day when silencing opponents becomes a substitute for civil discourse, especially on issues as important and complicated as health care reform. Yet, that’s what’s happening as national organizations encourage local residents to disrupt Congressional town hall meetings being held around the country during the Congressional August recess.

That people have strong opinions on health care reform is a given. There are few issues that touch Americans as deeply as the health and well being of themselves and their families. They should care passionately about changes to the American health care system and they should communicate their questions and concerns to their representatives.

Bringing town hall meetings to a halt, however, is not debate, discourse or discussion. It’s political thuggery aimed at preventing the exchange of ideas, not promoting them. The anger generating this misbehavior may be genuine, but the tactics are orchestrated. The campaign organization RightPrinciples.com distributed a memo on how to hijack town hall meetings. To be fair, after calling on opponents of the Democratic reform package to pack the hall and shout-out questions and objections, the memo cautions “Don’t carry on and make a scene – just short intermittent shout outs.”

Needless to say, this advice has gone by the wayside as some of these demonstrations have turned violent, members of Congress have been hung in effigy and lawmakers have had their lives threatened all while the media’s attention has shifted from the value of a public health plan to the whether the outbursts are genuine or orchestrated. (I think we can all agree that it’s more exciting for the media to cover a fist fight than an explanation on how comparative effectiveness of medical services might lower health care costs).

And it’s not that the demonstrations have turned ugly. Some of the rhetoric and fear mongering has gotten downright silly. Some have accused Democrats of promoting the killing of seniors because the bill allows Medicare reimbursement for consultations concerning living wills and other end-of-life issues. C’mon people, really? Or my personal favorite: calls to “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” Umm, for those paying attention, Medicare is a government health plan. 

It’s not just conservative organizers like the FreedomWorks that are to blame for this lack of civility. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has taken to calling insurance carriers villains and immoral. That doesn’t help with the tone. And now liberal groups are organizing to confront the conservative groups disrupting the town hall meetings.

Nor, by the way, are these kinds of tactics new. In 1996, shortly before election day, I was moderating a panel discussion featuring four health insurance executives when demonstrators, trailed by television and radio reporters, burst in, chanted slogans and dumped buckets of beans on the stage. They were there in support of a single-payer initiative on the California ballot – an initiative that was handily defeated.

Trying to silence the opposition through intimidation and disruption is an old tactic shared by the right and the left. That doesn’t make it correct nor is it helpful. There are serious issues that need to be debated. And there is a legitimate need for changes to the status quo. It would be nice if we dealt with the substance of what’s at stake, but that’s hard to do in the midst of intentional chaos.

Of course, it’s easier to shout someone down than to persuade through ideas. Perhaps what these demonstrators fear is that, in a real dialogue, they would be able to express their ideas, but they’d have to listen as well. And that might lead to someone actually learning something.

Would that really be such a bad thing?