The most recent spats over healthcare (or “Obamacare,” depending on your political persuasion) have centered on the “American-ness” of the angered, predominantly middle-aged white folks throwing fits at town hall meetings across the country. Republican commentators are lauding their civic engagement, while Democratic leaders are deriding their uncivil outbursts. The public debate has recently reached the absurd, with each side jockeying for sole control of the ever-effective “Nazi” insult. Apparently, somebody is Hitler incarnate—we just don’t know if it’s President Obama or Rush Limbaugh.
The ensuing public discussion underscores the point I made last Friday: that the GOP’s “anti-community organizing” rhetoric is antithetical to actual political mobilization. I’ve watched the Youtube videos, and it’s almost pathetic to see potential political activists relegated to mere rabble-rousers. With just a skeleton of an organizational structure, these folks could really make a substantial difference in American political culture, shifting us away from the dead-end debate over their patriotism and instead focusing the national discussion on their concerns and misgivings.
Of course, if that were the focus of the debate, their worries might be assuaged with the logic of Obama’s healthcare plan. Or maybe not. Either way, the current state of affairs is producing roadblocks from all angles: from the outside, the visible anger at these town halls is framing the national discussion on emotions rather than substance, while lack of organization is impeding the “protestors” efforts from the inside.
Sean Hannity has called their actions “as American as apple pie." Michelle Malkin has lauded their “counter insurgency.” Other conservative commentators graciously refer to them as “demonstrators.” Real Americans realizing their democratic duty and standing up for what they believe in. A group of modern-day Paul Reveres, they claim.
As persuasive as these pundits are, I can’t say I’m convinced. Without organization, these outbursts are ephemeral. Organization aids sustainability, and there really isn’t a centralized effort to harness their collective anger. Our failure to discuss political organization is in large part due to our faulty understanding of past political action and protest. Many Americans still hold the historically inaccurate, romanticized vision of Rosa Parks as a courageous individual that was just too tired to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus—a single, individualized event that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. But Parks worked as a secretary at the NAACP’s Montgomery chapter for years before her famous act of civil disobedience. In fact, that single, courageous act actually took months of planning—and Parks wasn’t even the NAACP’s first choice to be their poster child for the bus boycotts. The original woman chosen by the NAACP—fifteen year-old Claudette Colvin—became pregnant a few months after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, and the organization feared her pregnancy might delegitimize their cause as a result.
Effective political action occurs after lengthy planning sessions, prolonged mobilizing efforts, and strong leadership. Unfortunately for the Republicans, it doesn’t come through dispersed, decentralized angry outbursts.
Of course, political organizing may be the necessary action to enact change, whereas sporadic yelling and screaming at the town halls may be effective at thwarting change. And at the end of the day that’s what these folks want, after all. But let’s not confuse this for something it’s not. Civic engagement, sure. Political protests? Demonstrations? The seeds of a new social movement? Not by a long shot.