A thing I wish I had not done: A report from Sunday's Health Care Reform Town Hall

After all of the hullabaloo the past week about chaos and disruptions at health care oriented town halls across the country, here's a somewhat tardy account of last Sunday's Philadelphia event, one of the very first to be over-run with anti-reform protesters.

On Sunday, I went to what was billed as "a town hall meeting on health insurance reform" at the Constitution Center, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and recent-D Senator Arlen Specter. The event was also billed as being devoted largely to "taking questions from the audience," but "questions" is far too generous a term to describe the reality, and, I suppose, so was "audience." An ample crowd packed into a limited space (not the auditorium, but a large open area on the second floor) and tittered as we awaited the event's start, with ample stickers and shirts, and animated conversations too numerous for me to effectively eavesdrop on.

Unfortunately, an ominous chill was also in the air, as tight-lipped women shook their heads angrily, young men (one of whom I'm certain was recently given his first Bill O'Reilly book for his Bar Mitzvah) muttered about "socialism" and many, many "Tell Washington No.com" (the site is too embarrassing for me to even link to) bumper stickers were sported, oddly, on shirts and foreheads. An angry minority spontaneously driven to protest encroachment on their freedoms or some kind of astroturfing? Impossible to tell, though at the very least, these folks seemed to be watching the same Fox News programs and reading the same fringe websites, and someone gave out all those stickers (From a tactics memo: "Try To 'Rattle Him,' Not Have An Intelligent Debate").

Once the event began in earnest, the loud booing started almost instantly, though it was hard to tell what it was for. Constitution Center president Linda E. Johnson? I asked a women nearby, and she just hissed "Specter, Specter!" A few feet over, a taller guy started yelling "socialism! socialism!" (I think he meant this as a pejorative descriptor and not a request, unfortunately). And then. . . things proceeded to actually find a hill to go down. Anything Sebelius or Specter tried to say was drowned out by boos, chants, and cries of "no socialized medicine." Sebelius looked genuinely shocked and troubled. Specter just looked glad to be anywhere. I actually quickly began to feel bad for Sebelius, an intelligent person charged with explaining the Obama administration's position, a quality and a task that many of the most vocal members of the audience seemed to reject a priori. This youtube video is rather indicative of the surreal spectacle, in which - and video evidence provides I didn't hallucinate this - people seem to DEFEND the insurance companies, a target I'm certain Sebelius (with reason) thought we could all agree on.

This video has been accruing about 1,000 comments a day:

The general tenor of the town hall event and quality of the dialogue there could probably be approximated by reading the comments on those youtube videos: inchoate ranting, many vague allusions to "socialism," booing, and yelling. At one point, I'm pretty sure I heard a line about "making it illegal for insurance companies to eliminate people with pre-existing positions" get booed. !!! In this climate, there wasn't much for Sebelius and Specter to do but what they do: Sebelius vainly trying to counter the litany of absurd accusations ("No sir, I don't think this has any new funding for abortion in it [federal funding for abortions has been illegal since 1976] or anything about assisted suicide.") and Specter saying as little as possible. The only real "news" was Specter's repeated proclamation that "single-payer should be on the table," a newly public declaration that seemed oddly toothless and cynical: note the (repeated) attention to the words "should be on the table" and not "I intend to introduce legislation establishing single-payer" or even "I'll support such legislation."

Many of the audience questions seemed to stick to sundry anti-reform talking points, mixed with a few pro-reform voices (a retired nurse declaring, "I'll gladly come back to work for single-payer!") and several true nut-jobs, including a guy babbling about "genocide" (abortion), a person with a convoluted question about assisted suicide, and similar paranoid theories. Questioner after questioner mentioned "socialized medicine" and "government takeovers," as the audience booed or cheered. One strapping young lad seemed so pleased at his question that he fairly beamed, assuming a Superman hands-on-hips stance. Certain segments of the audience delighted.

The overall effect was deeply depressing and demoralizing, as I watched ignorance and volume carry the day, reducing any chance at dialogue to histrionics and sloganeering. Predictably, Fox News reported that "Kathleen Sebelius and Sen. Arlen Specter got a preview Sunday of the tough sell lawmakers will face over health care as audience members booed and jeered them during a town hall meeting in Philadelphia," as if this were somehow indicative of larger public sentiment (which, polls repeatedly show, it is not).

Even after much reading about industry lobbying, I still find it hard to fully comprehend how many individuals seemingly internalize the arguments of the health insurance industry and really, truly feel that the government is trying to somehow take over their lives. The amount of pure paranoia and rage on display was staggering but also somehow amazing: people really seem to fear the abstract threat of "socialism" more than they fear the very real threat of being without health insurance. Almost no attempt was made to understand the actual intricacies of health care reform or the dire situation health care is in. Unfortunately, I never got to use my heckle - "more funding for mental health screenings!" - on any of the stupider questioners, but a real lesson was realizing we need MUCH more funding for public education.

Mercifully, the event was cut off after an hour. People filtered out to confront more signs and yelling, among them the predictable jeremiads against abortion and yet more signs decrying "socialized medicine."

The most telling event took place outside. I asked an older woman carrying one of these anti "government medicine" signs if she was on Medicare. "You won't be able to choose your doctor," she screeched, as her similarly old friend smoked nearby (never mind that my HMO doesn't let me choose my doctor NOW). I asked her again, and she told me yes, she is on Medicare, "but I pay taxes!" She told me she gets to choose her own doctor. Then she started going on again about how government can't be trusted to run health care. I asked her if she liked her Medicare (a fully government-funded and operated true single-payer health system). "It works pretty good for me," she told me.

There are some encouraging signs that the White House and DNC are drawing the right conclusions from these events and utilizing appropriate responses in their messaging, but we may not know the real effect until Congress re-convenes in September. Meanwhile, the LA Times and New York Times both take shots today at sorting out what's really going on in the health care bills and debunking those "euthanasia" myths. Oh, and Sarah Palin is concerned about "Obama’s 'death panel.'"

Nice title...


An angry minority spontaneously driven to protest encroachment on their freedoms or some kind of astrofurfing? Impossible to tell, though at the very least, these folks seemed to be watching the same Fox News programs and reading the same fringe websites, and someone gave out all those stickers...

I guess I just hope a clear focus stays on the analysis in the video below: this is a clear manipulation of our already hobbled democratic process by corporate interests and political operatives.

i said "impossible to tell"

i said "impossible to tell" because while there is clearly a concerted and organized effort from the kind of groups in that video, which i didn't mean to downplay, i don't know exactly how those individuals got there. for all i know, they were all separately moved to go by watching glenn beck. i really should have asked them but at that point, i was so caught off-guard. but one of the scary things i was trying to get across is how they really seem deeply personally invested and to have internalized these "arguments," though it's also clear a lot of it is deep resentment against obama and liberalism (in the political and not economic sense). another thing i didn't get into was what portion of these people are even from philadelphia, which is obviously not nearly as heavily white and conservative as that video makes us look.

Yeah towards the end of the clip

Maddow is clearly consciously walking a fine line: real people are expressing real (if ginned-up) fears. To move towards rebuilding our shredded public discourse--something that seemed hopeful during the renewed civic engagement of the election and inauguration periods--as a culture we need to hear and acknowledge and address those fears.

But at the same time we can't be pulled into conflating a carefully orchestrated set of exploitative (of fear, of commitment to the democratic process) tactics ("this is what these people do, and they are professionals") with the democratic process they are directly undermining. It's a real 'world upside down' moment we are stuck in: we can't be against people's right to speak and their right to protest. And we shouldn't slip into that even when the back and forth seems like fourth grade political debate. But at the same time, things need to be reported as they are. Corporate and party funding and logistical support, for example.

well, there is a big

well, there is a big difference between forbidding and decrying. i think it's perfectly fine to bemoan these kind of tactics, as they really just demean everyone and make things a mockery. the natural consequence is for reps to stop having these kind of public events, which is a huge shame. there is also a clear push towards violence, implicitly or increasingly explicitly, that is simply not ok. while, yes, protesting and speaking are great, a lot of what you are seeing at these town halls is really attempts to shut down speech, to completely derail these events, as that much-quoted memo says.

that said, as far as

that said, as far as "addressing those fears" - that is clearly impossible with some people. as far as the larger, non townhall disrupting portion of the populus that has concerns about health care, i do think the dems have largely done a lousy job explaining both the need for reform and how it's going to happen. obama made a good stab at his last press conference, but it was overshadowed in the next day's report by stuff about henry louis gates. generally, i think much more should be made about how ballooning health care costs are seriously cutting into people's pay, but i don't hear much about that in public discourse.

How the wingnuts are helping us and why we are going to win.

We in Pennsylvania have built a huge movement for health care reform, so it is not surprising that we were one of the first places to witness the right wing’s vicious campaign of lies and intimidation at the Town Hall held by Senator Specter and HHS Secretary Sebelius in Philadelphia a week ago.

I’ll admit that we were all surprised by anti-democratic tactics that I had not seen in over thirty years of political activism. But, if we are all willing to work hard and keep to our strategy and take immediate action when we need you to, I guarantee we are going to win health care reform this year. And the right wing craziness is going to help us.

(A list of this week's actions can be found at http://blog.hcanpa.org/?p=166)

Here’s why: The right wing strategy has two parts. The first is to bring small numbers of people to events to get media attention by means of utterly outrageous action. The second is to distract attention from the serious issues that concern people—the rising costs of health care and insurance and the shenanigans of insurance companies that deny people coverage and care when they most need—by telling outright lies about what the bills before Congress contain.

For four reasons, this strategy is going to fail.

1. Despite the financial resources of insurance companies and right wing PACs, they cannot match the huge base of support we have built around the country in the last year. In Pennsylvania alone, we hold two or three health care reform events every day and we are ramping up our efforts in the next five weeks. While the media loves spectacles, the people who will ultimately decide whether health care reform gets enacted, the members of Congress, recognize that our movement has deep roots and a broad reach. The media will get this pretty soon, too.

2. The right wing tactics are so repulsive and arguments so completely bogus that they are driving people away. Tit for tat arguments often turn people in the middle off and diminish their interest in a issue among those who are politically unsure or uninvolved. But when an issue of manifest importance is being treated with seriousness and respect on one side and with patently ludicrous claims and contempt on the other, the first side wins. That’s us. (Click http://www.hcanpa.org/docs/truths-lies.pdf for a document that answers the lies of the opposition with the truth.)

3. And most importantly, the people who are going to make the key decisions this year are the members of Congress. And the totalitarian tactics of the right wing have very much alienated members of Congress. I was in Washington this week meeting with staff members of some of our Blue Dogs, whose commitment to health care reform has sometimes seemed shaky. They are utterly furious at the right wing craziness. Some Representatives in Pennsylvania who had kept us at some distance, are now embracing us and looking for ways to help us get their defense of health care reform out to their constituents. Even Republicans are embarrassed by these tactics, which will put them on the defensive in Washington.

4. Our plan is not to directly engage the right wingers and their lies about health care reform legislation. We have and will continue to make available to the media and to you a detailed response to their distortions. However, our task out in the field is to focus on moving our message about the need to make health care affordable and secure for everyone forward. We will adopt certain tactics to help restore civility in town halls when the right wingers disrupt them and to contrast our message and our respect for true debate with that of our opponents. Click http://www.hcanpa.org/docs/PAGuideforHealthCareActivists.pdf for a guide to how you should respond to right wing attacks at the events you attend.

No one every promised that, after a hundred years of trying, it would easy to secure quality affordable health care for all. We always knew that this is a complicated issue in which there are no simple solutions. We always knew that the solutions we propose would be hard to explain and would create uncertainty among the American people. We always knew that there would be intense opposition from health insurance companies and right wing ideologues.

But we have designed this campaign, from the start, to focus on the problems of the insecurity cost of insurance that need immediate attention; to present real solutions that appeal to Americans—a choice of competing public and private insurance plans; and to build a movement that could withstand the opposition we always expected. Right now in Pennsylvania and across the country we are doing hundreds of events, canvassing, phone banking, meeting with members of Congress and helping them reach out to their constituents and running TV and radio advertisements to build support for health care reform.

We have made enormous progress. We have a very good bill in the House. The political dynamics of the moment will lead eventually, I think, to an equally good bill in the Senate. And we have a still popular, tenacious, and accomplished President leading us.

If progressive stay committed to this fight, I am absolutely sure we will win.


Can I link to show the ACORN people getting bused, professional signs and the anti-war protests, or any other protests from the left... as a hallmark of civility? I think that would just take hours of viewing entertainment...

The problem is you guys don't like getting a taste of your own medicine...

Get used to it,,,DISSENT is VERY AMERICAN..


the anti-war protests were done with marching permits, and did not involve protestors storming townhalls and shouting down conversations between elected reps and constituents.

this whole 'ACORN' schtick is a crock because you don't even know what ACORN does (except whatever lies you leatned on glenn beck and rush limpdick's show).
dissent IS american, but shouting down your fellow americans isn't dissent: it's called "acting like a 5 year old with a tantrum".

which is an accurate definition of the right-wing flying monkey brigade.

oh, and an ellipsis is made up of three periods, not three commas.


I'm trying to figure out how your comment about permits for the anti war protests have to do with townhall meetings. Since they are not required under the circumstances, your comment has zero relevance.

As far as ACORN is concerned, as a minority I've delt with them before..Not to mention, if you had half a brain, you can look up all and any sort of info you want on them, because it's public...

Finally, in case you haven't figured it out yet,,,people are yelling, cause they are angry and DC is not listening...

Sorry to break the news to you, but as ALL the polls show, the overwhelming majority of Americans, don't want this make believe reform of healthcare...

Plz, this is not a grammar class,,,but if you feel the need to sound intellectually superior, knock yourself out...

i'd be curious to see some of these polls

"Sorry to break the news to you, but as ALL the polls show, the overwhelming majority of Americans, don't want this make believe reform of healthcare..."

i don't think that's true, and my original piece, above, provides numerous links to polls showing that americans favor reform. can you please provide some (reputable) polls that show otherwise? i know the opponents are throwing around polls that show most people are happy with their existing care, but that doesn't contradict polls that show most people still support reform, still support a public option, and still think reform is important now despite the recession. for instance, i'm, all things considered, relatively happy with my health insurance, but i still strongly support major reform. here's kaiser family foundation's july tracking poll:

Sorry to burst your bubble

But not EVERYONE that lives in Philly or is a minority is a liberal left wing goon.

yes, but democratic

yes, but democratic registrations and presidential votes in the city of philadelphia outweigh republicans by about 7 or 8 to 1.

some excellent recent commentary

that shores up the hypocrisy from the right.


funny yet quite pointed (bill o'reilly calling protesters that shout people down "like the nazis"):

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Healther Skelter
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Spinal Tap Performance

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Healther Skelter
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Spinal Tap Performance

and here's more examples of people. . .

. . . saying government can't run health care in the same breath they praise their medicare and VA treatment.

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