Ancient Athens is credited with establishing the first true democracy. We’re talking some 2500 years ago, and that democracy, such as it was, was limited in size (far from all of the city’s residents had voting rights) and somewhat uncertain as to effect (some measures were clearly decided by popular vote; others may have been ceded to or usurped by military authority).
But Athenian democracy still stands as a textbook model of how people can govern themselves. And it certainly was a model the early European settlers embodied in their town hall meetings during the days of pioneer and communal living that marked much of the early development of colonial America.
Those town hall meetings were marked by civility and open discourse. Everyone who wanted to influence the decision at hand was permitted to express his or her view, and then, often by voice vote, the will of the majority was effectuated.
Fast forward a few centuries, and the town hall meetings are in revival. The subject is health care, and the meetings are being held by elected policy makers (everyone from the local member of Congress to the President himself) to engage differing opinions on various aspects of the pending Congressional proposals in meaningful dialogue.
At least that was the plan. But instead of civil discourse and legitimate debate, many of these meetings have featured angry groups of attendees, many shouting disapproval at just about every mention of anything even remotely suggesting a governmental aspect to the reform proposals.
At first, when these outbursts were shown on television news broadcasts (they have since become a staple of the cable news networks), the thought was that most of the agitation was being orchestrated by special interest groups (primarily those representing the insurance industry, which has the most to lose in any reform measure). And, in fact, evidence clearly established the role of lobbyists for the industry in secret “instructions” that were disseminated to the protesters.
But as the month has worn on, the incivility has developed a life-blood of its own, fueled by a hostility that needs little prodding to unleash itself.
Far from the citizens’ debates in ancient Athens, the new town halls have featured protesters shouting at elected representatives, crowds applauding anti-government rhetoric and even self-described “proud NRA members” toting visible handguns in holsters at their hips, as if to suggest they are deadly serious about the rights they think they are asserting.
Guns at a public debate? What’s going on here?
There is, in these protests, something vaguely familiar albeit less easily identified. It first surfaced in the ill-fated third party campaign of Ross Perot in 1992. Many who flocked to Perot that year were also angry, although their anger then was more contained, partly because Perot’s candidacy gave them vent for it.
But the anger was there, perhaps not quite visible, just beneath the surface, in the rallies for Perot and his simplistic solutions that denigrated government and suggested a better, albeit an undefined, way to solve the country’s problems. Perot was not a public servant; he wasn’t offering realistic solutions or even better processes. He was, in essence, just a demagogue, playing to the discontent of the masses.
But with two wars and a nasty recession suggesting government hasn’t gotten any better at solving problems, those masses don’t need a mouthpiece anymore. They just need a reason and a forum.
The health care reform initiative is enough of a reason, and the town hall meetings are more than enough of a forum.
Consider the actual rhetoric the protesters are using. They call any aspect of the various pending bills that have a government role “socialistic,” when, in fact, no aspect of the alternatives currently being considered are in any way socialistic. No proposal seeks to nationalize ownership of hospitals or to put health care professionals on government payrolls.
What is being proposed is a way to control costs (through greater efficiency and increased competition, both of which are hallmarks of a strong capitalist system) and a way to cover more individuals (again with easier access to health insurance, most of which would be provided by private companies, with some kind of government option only available as a last resort).
But the protests are expressing anger, anger that has probably been pent up for years, if not generations. And my sense is that this anger (dare we even call it rage?) is caused by something most observers have failed to recognize – the loss of individual autonomy.
This loss has probably been creeping into our existence since the end of World War II, if not before, but it has become especially palpable more recently. It has expressed itself in many ways, in many different settings. Here are a few examples to ponder.
The credit card explosion has stolen our sense of financial autonomy. (How many Americans even think of living without debt anymore?)
The “war on terrorism” has destroyed our ease of mobility. (Air travel is at best a necessary evil.)
Small business ownership is disappearing as an American institution. (Either mega-corporations are gobbling them up or restrictive regulations like those promulgated by the ADA and the EPA are destroying their profitability.)
Manufacturing jobs are disappearing at a rapid rate, leaving a potential work force with little to do and the fear of poverty always lurking for millions of Americans. (As good jobs become ever scarcer, more of the active work force must “lower” itself to menial work that offers few chances for improvement and minimal benefits.)
These and many other de-humanizing changes in our society have had the effect of denying many Americans their sense of personal autonomy, of the ability to be masters, if you will, of their own destiny.
Instead, many Americans now feel trapped – trapped in lives that aren’t providing happiness, security, or even a sense of individual identity.
The result is a permanent angry class of Americans that is growing in number and in rage. And if I’m right, these protests at town hall meetings may be the start of something much scarier than anything we are witnessing now.