When I was growing up in the 1960’s my father and I would often have vigorous discussions and debates (some called them arguments) about the issues of the day. This was the era of Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation movement and so much more. My father was and still is a staunch moderate Republican who believes that Ronald Reagan was America’s greatest president in the modern era. While he laments the moral conservatism of his party, he supports its generally pro-business perspective. I, on the other hand, was and still am left of center on most issues. So, as you can imagine we had and still have some pretty steep differences on many issues.
Yet, despite those differences, our discussions were (and are) always civil, controlled and respectful. In fact on occasions when my mother, who generally sided with Dad, got emotionally worked up, he would ask her to excuse herself. Debate in our house was about expressing your position logically and respectfully, and then listening to the other. Dad modeled respectful discourse, the ability to disagree agreeably. As I have grown into adulthood, I realize it is one of his greatest gifts to me.
The other night, my wife and I, attended a town hall meeting on health care sponsored by our Congressperson, Joe Sestak. Rep Sestak is a tireless worker, a retired military man, and a moderate Democrat. He began the session with a few personal remarks, and then proceeded to field comments. The pastor of the church where we were meeting implored people to be “humble and respectful,” but when the questions started that request was quickly forgotten. At points Sestak acknowledged that he and members of Congress had not explained themselves clearly, and that was why he was there that night. Several times he expressed his desire to hear people’s concerns, and address their questions. However, when he tried to explain aspects of the bill, people in the crowd just shouted “liar.” They accused him of not considering their views, even as he stood there attentively listening to their diatribes. I don’t know how he did it, but he maintained a cool and respectful demeanor in spite of much hostility (I guess that military training is good for something!). Most of the questions became opportunities for people to vent their fears, their veiled hatred of President Obama, their anger at undocumented immigrants, and their disregard for the 47 million Americans without health care. While most people, like myself, were there to learn what actually was in the bill, we had to do so through the din and noise of the hecklers.
Despite the belligerent disrespect of the questioners, I came away with a better understanding of the bill, and the reasons to support it. I also came away with a much higher regard for Rep. Sestak. However, I also came away quite discouraged about democracy as it is practiced in America.
You see, I believe strongly in democracy, in the right of people to have a voice in their government. In fact I believe in democracy, not just every 4 years, but work consistently to create spaces where community folks can come together on a regular basis to address and resolve their problems in their communities. I applaud the work of groups like Everyday Democracy that have created materials and guides for communities to come together around issues they face in their communities. I wish every state had the caucus system like Iowa come election time. These are opportunities for people to come together in the spirit of grassroots democracy to discuss and resolve the issues of the day.
However, I could not carry on such an effort with the hecklers in that crowd the other night, not because I disagree with their position, but because there is not the environment of respect needed for healthy dialogue. Media talk show hosts, like Rush Limbaugh on the Right and Bill Maher on the Left, have turned political discussions into shouting matches and name calling. What gets reported in the mainstream news is not the issues, but the nature of the fights over the issue. Notice, for instance, how reports of the town hall meetings generally are not about what is said on the issues, but about the guns people bring, and the shouting people do. The media is more interested in the fight than what the fight is about. And now lots of people have followed suit and brought this attitude into the town hall meetings.
I still believe in democracy, but I left the meeting with a heaviness about our ability to live together in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-cultural society where everything is not going to go my way. It seemed the other night that a lot of folks had decided to build their bunker or fortress and just start firing away over the wall with no respect for the humanity of others, or the willingness to listen, consider, and seek to work together in spite of differences.
Perhaps, Dad, we need to gather folks around a big table, and show them how democracy is really supposed to work.