Footage of right-wing mobs disrupting Town Hall meetings with Congressmembers has caused many to ask: why aren’t progressives effectively countering these attacks? Some believe that progressives are unwilling to mobilize around a health proposal whose key provisions are not final. Others argue that Obama’s political base ardently backs reform, but has not been effectively organized to storm these public meetings and out-chant the opposition. But the town hall venue is not where pro-reform activists should make their stand. Supporters of a Democratic Congressmember’s views are unlikely to attend such events, and the media will also criticize any organized “shouting down” of “the public” from unions or other organized progressive groups. Instead of mimicking our adversaries’ tactics, progressives should hold mass rallies in swing districts, a strategy that plays to our strength. These rallies will show pro-reform supporters overwhelming the opposition, and their size prevents right wing activists from taking over the events.
Activists often make the mistake of fighting battles on their opponent’s turf. Small town hall meetings are so easy to disrupt that they offer a perfect forum for the passionate Rush Limbaugh crowd that lacks a broad base; in contrast, such events do not allow progressives’ far greater numbers to be demonstrated, and they are held in locations where a minority of attendees can easily take over.
Rallies for Health Care
Progressives do far better in staging mass rallies to show public support. In fact, conservatives long demeaned such grassroots events, arguing, not without reason, that election outcomes were the best test of public attitudes.
Republicans aren’t heard making this latter argument any more. After suffering huge electoral losses in 2006 and 2008, and with polls showing the Republican Party suffering from an 18%-73%
favorability/unfavorability rating and Congressional Republicans approval numbers at only 10%, conservatives are seeking less democratic ways to control the public debate.
That’s where the anti-tax “tea parties” and disruption of town hall meetings fit in. Both create opportunities for a small minority to create the false illusion of majority support.
The most effective way to defeat this strategy is not by outshouting the screamers at town halls. Rather, it is outnumbering them at large public events.
Those organizing for health care reform need to mobilize around major events in cities large and small across the nation, the type of events that the Obama campaign put on multiple times daily last fall.
Those large events also included right-wing disrupters, but their voices and tactics were overwhelmed by the size of the pro-Obama crowds. The small proportional size of these opponents led the media to frame them as hecklers rather than as a political force, and the same would be true for pro-reform health care rallies.
Is There a Pro-Reform Base to Mobilize?
Assuming that rallies are scheduled, some doubt whether pro-reform crowds would come. Many progressives argue that Obama’s failure to promote a specific plan has left potential backers unsure about what they are supporting, and hence unwilling to attend pro-reform events.
I think this argument misses the history of organizing efforts around universal health care.
While health care has been a driving issue in Democratic presidential primaries for decades, a candidate’s health care stand has rarely been the deciding issue for voters in November presidential and senate races. That’s a major reason why anti-universal health care Republicans dominated United States politics from Nixon through Bush II, and why this is the only industrialized nation without such a system.
Recall how Pennsylvania’s Harris Wofford won a U.S. Senate seat in a special election in 1991 running on the health care issue, but was defeated three years later by the extremely right-wing, and anti-health care Rick Santorum. And this was in Pennsylvania, a state whose aging population would appear to be most motivated by the health care issue.
For all the talk about how progressives would really be galvanized if Obama was proposing single-payer, we did not witness such activism when California had a single-payer initiative on the 1994 ballot. While progressive doctors, nurses, and health care workers were passionate about the issue, it never galvanized low-income communities or mobilized the large crowds and volunteer base necessary to avoid a landslide defeat.
Health care reform is a hard issue because it is incredibly complicated, and it is difficult to mobilize those most impacted by the lack of universal care. I think Obama’s support for a public option creates sufficient clarity for organizing and mobilizing the big numbers necessary to send a loud message that America demands universal health care now.
August is Challenging
While large pro-reform rallies are critical, let’s not forget that August might be the most difficult month to hold such events. Families are on vacation, students are off-campus, and even those union organizers who work 100-hour weeks seem to disproportionately take vacations this month.
That’s why the town hall disruption strategy works for the right-wing, as it does not require many bodies and they could not put together a large rally against health-care in a Democratic district if they tried. But the groups organizing around health care reform must overcome the August challenge, and large events this month will be deemed even more impressive by the politicians.
When we recall how much time people spent to elect Barack Obama, hundreds of thousands if not millions are clearly willing to attend a large health care rally in their city this month. The question is whether a pro-reform outreach effort that has frequently asked people for money or emails can now generate the people power for mass events that the enactment of a public option requires.
Randy Shaw discusses the importance of pro-active activism in The Activist’s Handbook.