Married to the Mob: Health Care Reform Town Hall Meetings

Democrats are upset with Republicans. Film at 11! Yes, it sounds like the usual “dog bites man” stuff, hardly newsworthy at all:

The Obama White House and congressional Democrats are accusing Republicans of organizing “mobs” to “disrupt” the late summer pre-fab pep rallies that politicians euphemistically refer to as “town hall meetings.”

All across America, these political puff/promo events are collapsing into ugly confrontations between politicians who want to complete the government takeover of health care and citizens who’d rather they didn’t. It’s reminiscent of the time back in 1989 when a bunch of Medicare patients chased then-Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) around the block and besieged his limo over the “catastrophic care” bill.

As is so often the case, I’m less interested in the particular issue at hand than I am in the implications of how that issue’s playing out in the public sphere and in terms of interaction between ruler and subject.

Democrats are screaming “astroturf!” Republicans are responding “grassroots!” They can’t both be right … or can they? When you get right down to it, maybe they can.

Both parties have a long record of setting up more or less sophisticated operations to mobilize constituencies and portray those mobilizations as indicators of “grassroots support.” Their opponents, of course, can be counted upon to cry foul and point to the money, coordination and uniformity of talking points by way of proving that it’s all a Big Show.

There are certainly differences in style. For example, the Republicans tend to use money donated directly by Big Business to bring out the crowds with advertising and promotion keyed to the talking points of subsidized think tanks, while the Democrats often launder that corporate money through Big Labor first and then rely on grateful union bosses to herd their members onto buses, while washing the talking points through friendly government bureaucracies.

In substance, it’s pretty much the same thing, though. The politicians know what they plan to do long before the “town hall meetings” are scheduled. They’re not there to seek public advice, they’re there to create the illusion of public support, which they hope to then use as a basis for the manufacture of consent (or, if they’re in the opposition bloc, dissent).

Whether these operations are dirt (heavy on the fertilizer and with a generous dollop of Miracle-Gro®) or just plastic with green paint on it is rather beside the point. They’re certainly not spontaneous demonstrations of support or opposition. They’re manufactured props, created — or at least gamed — by establishment players to boost or bust proposals for minor revisions to the status quo. It’s managed mobocracy, and it’s become a permanent part of the political landscape.

Of course, this all makes it far more difficult for genuine “grassroots” movements to make things happen.

For one thing, it’s tough to compete for mind share with deep-pocketed “opponents” who operate from the advantaged position of power, whose disagreements are minor and transient, and who agree wholeheartedly that there’s no room in the discussion for loudmouths with random, unapproved opinions of their own.

For another, it’s getting hard to tell authentic “grassroots” movements from the Democratic and Republican facsimiles thereof. Here’s a simple test:

If the protester is telling the politician “we don’t need your program,” he’s probably a shill for, or at least a victim of, astroturf.

If the protester is telling the politician “I don’t need you,” he may be the real thing.

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