Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dennis Does Democracy

I went to my congressman's (Rick Larsen, Democrat) "health care forum" yesterday, having been compelled by one of the Moveon-type liberal activist organizations that send me emails (I think it was "BarackObama.com").

I arrived at the stadium (of the Seattle Mariners' triple-A baseball team, the Everett Aquasox) two hours early as the email suggested; there was a crowd gathered at the gates. The anti-reform faction had set up a table. A woman with a microphone was reading from a sheet of talking points, her insufficient amplification system being shouted down by the chanting of the pro-reform faction. Whenever someone took the microphone they were drowned out by chants of "Yes We Can" or "Liar, Liar."

The lefties were outnumbered by about 2 to 1, but appeared to be more the product of a unified organizational effort, with pre-printed signs and many in matching t-shirts (the conservatives all had hand-written impromptu signs). The local Democratic Party affiliate had set up their own booth with petitions and campaign-style paraphernalia. People jostled to block their opponents' signs with their own, but mostly kept their hands to themselves.

Eventually a group of young men showed up with Obama-as-Hitler posters. One of them positioned himself behind the conservatives' table as a woman was speaking, holding his sign aloft. He was hustled off by one of the larger conservative men. I later learned this was a contingent of LaRouche supporters. They were all young, with at least one woman in their group, and unexceptional enough in appearance.

At one point an overweight fellow with an effeminate manner showed up with a bullhorn, demanding: "Repeal the Bush tax cuts! Repeal the Bush tax cuts!" He was surrounded by detractors who argued with him for a while; he explained that he was there because the anti-reform protesters were "not welcome" at a "rally for health-care reform." Whether he was mistaken about the nature of the "town hall meeting" or was referring to the preliminary gathering at the gates I'm not sure. While his bullhorn gave him amplification superiority over the conservatives' paltry sound system, he gave it a rest after a few minutes.

After about an hour the conservatives shut down and the crowd calmed. People mingled about showing deference to friends and foes alike; debates broke out here and there; a polite Northwestern version of the contentious battles that are going on across the nation.

When they opened the gates people were passing out question forms but once we got inside Rep. Larsen, after speaking briefly, took random questions directly from the crowd. These were mostly challenges to reform, often lacking coherence or taking the form of statements; this went for both sides. Not all challenges were from the right; one citizen asked if Larsen opposed single payer reform because he had taken "half a million dollars from the insurance companies" (Larsen denied this charge). Larsen denied that illegal immigrants would be eligible and the "death boards" charge. Occasionally there were shouts from the audience, boos or applause; one man stormed over to place himself directly in front of me (if you want to find the crank, he's always right in front of me; it was annoying, but I delighted in pointing myself out to my daughter later on the evening news) and berate the congressman at volume. He shortly relented, sulking off in an exaggerated fashion, muttering that he would "be quiet, for now." This was the single such incident of "shouting down."
If what I saw was a typical example of what's happening at these meetings across the country, then the media is overreacting. But then, as I've pointed out above, this is the polite Puget Sound.