For the Pilot & Today
Last fall, I knocked on the doors of thousands of voters from across Colorado and had dozens upon dozens of conversations with these people about many issues. These dialogues were an opportunity for me to hear the ideas of those who disagreed with me and have a civil, genuine debate on the future of the country.
I must have been incredibly naÃive, because after the election, I assumed, based on my hundreds of debates at front doors and on the phone with voters, that we were capable in this country of having an active say in our government through civil discourse. Our congressmen and congresswomen are sent to Washington to represent and promote the views of their constituents. That is the very reason congressmen hold town hall meetings. These forums are as close to representative democracy that an average citizen can get. Our congressmen want to hear from their constituents. That is why no person and no opinion is barred from these meetings. In essence, they are the definition of democracy.
However, what we have seen in the past few weeks regarding these events has been disgusting. Health care is a concern that has, and will continue to have, an effect on every single citizen of this country. On those merits, debate is essential. But this is not a debate.
The mob-mentality to which thousands have resorted when attending these town halls is, in every way, un-democratic. We all know that yelling, disrupting and being completely rude in public is unproductive and not acceptable. We all learned that in kindergarten.
I attended one of these events early this month in Denver at the state Capitol. As I ventured down from a pro-reform group to those on the other side of the debate, I witnessed a young man, maybe 17 years old, yelling at an older woman who disagreed with him. The kid, who proudly donned a T-shirt with a picture of President Barack Obama that read: "Hitler gave great speeches too," was yelling "socialist" and "you are a brown coat" at this woman. Since when has that behavior become acceptable?
Those against health insurance overhaul will claim that what I saw was an isolated incident and should not be taken as representation of the "anti-reform" movement. This, however, is just not true and to say otherwise shows ignorance toward the facts. Not only did I see more swastika signs comparing Obama to Hitler a day later at a rally outside of Rep. Betsy Markey's office in Fort Collins, but even worse displays of fear-mongering have shown up across America. A congressman was hanged in effigy with the protester smiling below, images of Obama with a "Hitler moustache" are carried proudly, and a swastika was spray-painted across a congressman's local office sign. These acts are sadly destructive to all progress we have made in this country concerning free speech and racial division.
The large organizations behind this mob-mentality approach to the town hall meeting should be ashamed. These well-organized groups are channeling angry citizens toward these town halls and arming them with false information and specifically guiding their members to scream, yell and disrupt the meetings at all costs.
They are trading on fear; telling their followers outrageous lies such as "death panels," that the reform includes money for abortions and insurance for illegal aliens, and that the government is somehow trying to "systematically dismantle this country." None of the bills being debated are calling for any of this. These organizations should feel incredibly guilty that they are deceiving hundreds of thousands with purely fabricated fear.
The issue of health care reform deserves an active public debate. There are thousands of people who come to these town halls with relevant and balanced questions from both sides, but when those concerned citizens are shouted down or their answers are drowned out by viral chants of "just say no," democracy disappears.
America needs a discussion on this topic and every other topic that comes into public relevance. However, to deny this discourse from even happening is a distraction while 18,000 people go bankrupt every day from medical bills, and hundreds die because of lack of care. It is destructive to our country, and those behind this un-American activity of smothering democracy should be ashamed.
Roberts was Barack Obama's field organizer for Northwest Colorado during the 2008 presidential campaign. He is a junior at Boston College pursuing a degree in political science and environmental studies.