Last night I and other progressives attended the Town Hall Forum on Health Care Reform thrown by our Republican congressman, Spencer Bachus. Here in the predominately white section of the Metro Birmingham, Alabama, area we knew from the outset, that the congressional district in which we live is so overwhelmingly GOP in makeup. As such, we were well aware that we were going to be severely outnumbered at the event. However, what we didn't make allowance for was just how outnumbered we were going to be. Many estimates projected that a total of 1,500 concerned citizens turned out to listen, boo the referee and the other team, and ask questions. Of those, maybe thirty or so were on our side. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters).
What the local media did not report, however, was a very important element of the event that would have explained quite a bit to those not in attendance. Whether by design or purely by coincidence, most who turned out were working class, primarily rural whites living in small towns in the surrounding area, who are not surprisingly among the reddest of the red. Almost no one who opposed to the proposed plan was well-educated, affluent, or part of the so-called country club Republican set. This meant that the amount of ignorance, misinformation, rowdy behavior, and occasionally atrocious grammar they exhibited was on painful display, especially as the night wore on. At times, I swear I thought the Civil War was about to resume at any moment.
Congressman Bachus proved himself moderately adept at playing to the crowd---making sure to play the Jesus card with a kind of pious reverence and also making special effort to cite the bravery and valor of our fighting men and women in uniform. As he is not a particularly good actor, he came off seeming not much smarter than they and it was easy to see how little conviction he placed behind making these safe, crowd-pleasing statements. In truth, he didn't have to be a very good cheerleader or salesman. The masses didn't necessarily require or demand anyone with much skill at presentation, they just needed someone to say it so they could cheer, clap, or yell along in solidarity. What was supposed to be an honest discussion began, as we all expected it would, with a self-serving attempt to shore up his base and keep them satisfied that he would keep their interests at heart when he returned to Washington, DC.
And as I surveyed the mass of people opposing us, my thoughts turned to what then-Candidate Obama said in his speech on race in Philadelphia.
Their experience is the immigrant experience. As far as they're concerned, no one gave them anything. They've built it from scratch.
Truer words could never be spoken. This simple belief ran through every fear, every half-truth, every distortion, and every jingoistic platitude that most of the audience expressed vocally while at the microphone. Unlike some, I didn't automatically hate or revile these people. Rather, I felt sorry for them and I pitied their condition. Please don't take this the wrong way. I don't mean what I've said condescendingly. What I recognized in listening to their questions is that these people were absolutely starving for substantive discourse and food for thought but so rarely got it in their daily lives. Their class envy and inferiority complex towards those with education and superior financial means showed up frequently. With it I again understood how the practice of keeping the masses dumbed down, or out of the loop due to a lack of educational opportunity, or blinded by cynicism to such a degree that they do not believe participation makes a difference one way or another is a reprehensible, yet depressingly effective tactic. Their behavior, be it occasionally shouting down one of our speakers or treating those of us who favored a government-run solution as though we had leprosy could not be described as malicious or virulent. If their conduct was anything, it was impotence disguised as bravery, self-doubt disguised as cockiness, and confusion disguised as straight talk. There were no fist-fights, no moments of high drama, no pushing and shoving, and no heated confrontations between people in attendance. There were one or two of the same wingnuts with fifty page manifestos to pass out that show up at every function like this. But what did exist was in many ways more upsetting. It was a group of people who had embraced fear and emotion because they didn't have enough understanding of the topic to be able to contemplate the matter rationally.
The biggest rebel yells of what was, in all fairness, a Republican Pep Rally broke out when the controversial topic of illegal immigration was brought up by a participant at the microphone. Eager to introduce it onto the floor, Bachus and his people brought forth a slide they had prepared for the occasion designed to underline how much illegal immigration cost the average taxpayer. But only a moment or so later, after the Congressman mentioned for the fourth time that our country was broke, I mentioned to the woman sitting next to me that if we were truly broke, how we could afford to build a border fence or pay to have more border patrol police. A few people of an opposing view were sitting behind us and listening to what we were saying amongst ourselves. For a moment or so they were reduced to silence, since apparently they had never thought of the matter in those terms. In response to what we had noted, one woman to the right of me in the crowd noted without much conviction that we ought to consider throwing out all of Congress and start again. The transformation was telling. Representative Bachus had been these peoples' champion for most of the night and now many were beginning to see his limitations and the limitations of their own previously held points of view. Certainly this doesn't mean that they won't vote for him next year while holding their nose or even that they'll become Democrats and embrace a progressive agenda, but they might contemplate the matter more closely henceforth.
We did manage to catch Representative Bachus in an inaccuracy a few times when he made statements that were clearly wrong or distorted. For example, he stated firmly that people making less $35,000 in this state were automatically eligible for Medicaid. His point in saying so was to assert that, in his opinion, the existing system has no gaping flaws and doesn't need to be reformed. That was so egregiously wrong that I couldn't help but shout out, "Not in this state!" He seemed genuinely taken aback. In reality, in this state, one cannot make any more than roughly $16,000 a year and single people like me are often left out of the loop altogether. One must have at least one child before it is likely that anyone, no matter how deserving can receive the benefits. The only other option to receive Medicaid benefits is if one files for disability, but if one does that, he or she is stating officially that he or she is too ill or too injured to work. Most people I know (and this includes myself) want to work and are quite willing to pay into the system to fund the program. Moreover, a disability payment check per month pays out so little that it places one at the poverty line automatically, that is, assuming one wasn't there already. Aside from private health care, which is very expensive to buy if one's employer or lack of employer doesn't provide it, Medicaid is often the only way in this state where one can receive even some modicum of health care coverage. I know this quandary well because I recently lost my own Medicaid and have been scrambling to find ways to have my prescription drugs covered or at least somewhat paid for because the cost out of pocket is so prohibitively high.
To return to the Town Hall---the first hour and a half of it was devoted to those who opposed the government option, for whatever reason. Representative Bachus, to his credit, did allow those of us who favored Health Care Reform to speak at the end. And it was at that point that the self-satisfied, smug, arrogance that had characterized most of the Town Hall switched abruptly to sober realization. The protocol at the beginning to ask a question was to write it down on a notecard, at which point the card would be drawn out of a hat. If you were one of the lucky ones, you then read your question in front of the audience. However, by the end, in a barely concealed and highly hypocritical magnanimous gesture, he allowed our side the ability to speak in front of the microphone without needing go to through the assigned system, a pose adopted in a pretense of fairness. When an African-American woman attached to an oxygen tank due to a chronic illness that might soon kill her began to talk, I noticed a huge polar shift in attitudes and emotions in the room. She talked about the amount of money private insurance companies swindled out of her because the cost of her treatment exceeded what they were willing to pay. Though many found her question antagonistic and rambling, I did notice that the previous starch and enthusiasm of the crowd waning precipitously. Though I wish she had kept more to the point, I couldn't help but empathize with her situation. Next, her son, a young man soon to enter the Naval Academy, came up to the microphone next and asked the Congressman why we could always find the money to fund wars or other pet projects but that somehow when Health Care Reform is brought up in Republican circles, everyone asks, "How much is this going to cost?" His answer was also somewhat rambling, and he was shouted down by a few in the audience, but not everyone. Bachus was set back on his heels and made no attempt to answer the question. This question clearly rattled most of the audience as well. No matter what side you were on, the previous cock-sure bravado on display at the outset never returned for the rest of the Town Hall.
At that point, many people in the Conference Center began to file out. Either they had heard enough or they had begun to understand that the issue was much more complicated than they had been led to believe. It was a largely deflated crowd that left the Town Hall last night and the difference between the outset of the festivities and their conclusion was as different as chalk and cheese. I suppose we might consider that something of a victory in and of itself. Even so, I'm not sure we really changed any minds last night. While I hope we at least gave people reason to think more critically about their hasty generalizations and base prejudices, one really has no way of knowing whose mind was open enough to think of things in a different way. What I drew out of the whole matter is that if most people were given the ability to have and use critical thinking rather than pure emotion or facile talking points, there's no telling how many needed reforms and proposals to aid all of humanity that we would have enacted by now.