A lot of bloggers are noticing Steven Pearlstein’s piece in today’s Washington Post in which he quite forcefully takes Republican leaders in Congress to task for the lies they are propagating, both directly and via their operatives in the streets and at political meetings.
Here are the first three paragraphs:
As a columnist who regularly dishes out sharp criticism, I try not to question the motives of people with whom I don’t agree. Today, I’m going to step over that line.
The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they’ve given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They’ve become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.
There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress — I’ve made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation.
This is what happens when massively powerful societal institutions are challenged — especially when those challenges actually stand a chance of becoming reality.
Two points, in my opinion, are crucially important: First, that what these anti-reform protesters are doing is the antithesis of legitimate democratic dissent, and in fact subverts democracy; and second, that although the crowds of ordinary people are genuine (not paid protesters, iow), their anger and fears are being stoked by well-paid political and corporate actors who have no problem with spreading the most outrageous lies and disinformation in order to stoke fears that are either very much overblown or groundless to begin with.
Krugman notes, as many others have, that the physical thuggishness — despite what right-wingers are saying — sets these demonstrations apart from any political dissent that greeted Republican political campaigns:
Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But there’s no comparison. I’ve gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I can’t find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds.
And I can’t find any counterpart to the death threats at least one congressman has received.
He also points out that, although the crowds disrupting public meetings and screaming at members of Congress are real, ordinary people (as opposed to operatives) who are genuinely angry and afraid, their anger and fears are so detached from the reality of what the Democrats’ proposals entail that you have to ask whether they are reacting to the substance of Pres. Obama’s ideas, or to flatly false narratives kicked up by people whose intentions are, shall we say, not benign:
There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they “oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.” Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.
Now, people who don’t know that Medicare is a government program probably aren’t reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they’re probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they’ve heard about what he’s doing, than to who he is.
That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don’t know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s a substantial fraction.
And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers.