You could actually pinpoint the moment, yesterday, at which the town hall Claire McCaskill held in Hillsboro, Missouri descended into absurdity. In response to the senator’s admonition against the incoherent shrieks that have become the soundtrack to these august August ‘exercises in democracy’—“I don’t get it,” she said. “I honestly don’t get it. Do you all think that you’re persuading people when you shout out like that?”—a sentiment managed to scream itself heard over the cacophony: “We don’t trust you!”
“You don’t trust me?” McCaskill replied, as the crowd—or, at least, a thunderingly vocal segment of it—made the mass nature of that mistrust known in the form of whoops and boos. The senator paused for a moment, then concluded: “I don’t know what else I can do. I don’t know what else I can do.”
And there the discussion—such as it was—came, predictably, to a halt. Once the no-confidence card has been played, there’s really nowhere else to go. For anyone involved. Discussion is pointless. Why waste time talking if the people you’re talking with simply won’t believe anything you say? And why, from the other perspective, waste time listening?
Welcome to the brave new world of politics, full of rants (mostly inarticulate) and chants (mostly inarticulate) and misinformation (mostly quite articulate)—the likes of which, taken together, would likely have left even Walter Lippmann, the ur-propagandist himself, baffled. Death panels! Mandated abortions! The entire subscription base of AARP The Magazine placed, with all their knitting needles and Canasta decks and Aspercreme, on a massive ice floe off the coast of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, never again to drain resources from the still-productive members of our society! Oh, and, speaking of production and society: Socialism! Socialism! Socialism!
The whole thing—the Orwellian-and-Kafkaesque-rolled-into-one overtones that have overtaken the national narrative—is, really, absurd to the point (almost) of comedy. Bob Inglis’s town hall, devolving into a referendum on Glenn Beck. Steny Hoyer’s audience member informing the House majority leader: “You’re lying to me. Just because I don’t have sophisticated language, I can recognize a liar when I see one.” (Later, Hoyer’s request to “let me tell you the facts” would be cut off by a woman’s screech of “No!”) The man who chose to use his time before Arlen Specter to accuse the senator of “trampling on our Constitution”—and then to inform Specter that “one day, God is going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you.” Kathleen Sebelius defending Specter after a Philadelphia crowd jeered at him for not having read through the Senate healthcare bill: “The Senate bill isn’t written,” she noted—“so don’t boo the senator for not reading a bill that isn’t written.”
Again: absurd. But, then, such scenes (and the many others like them) are amusing only until you begin to suspect that, somewhere not too far below the surface of all the rants and chants and shouts and murmurs, lie very real and very serious threats to the workings of American democracy. “No matter what party you belong to,” James Fallows had it, “you can’t think this is a sign of health for the Republic.”
Indeed, to indulge in our national hagiography for just a moment: the genius of the government the founders established was to a large extent its invention of a system that, through its complex of pulleys and levers, harnesses the raw power of heated debate. The Constitution essentially takes the disagreements that will inevitably arise among people who are given the freedom to speak their minds—and converts those disagreements into vehicles of progression, rather than stagnation.
But then—back to the distinctly hagiography-resistant present day—here’s the rub: in order for debate’s political productivity to be realized, there must be a baseline of agreement among its participants. People engaged in debate need to, you know, speak the same language—literally and figuratively. (Or, at the very least, they must have accurate translations. Just ask Hillary Clinton.) And: they must also operate on the same basic level of cognition—of rhetoric and, significantly, of information. A debate in which one side talks and the other shrieks is, really, no debate at all. And a debate in which participants fundamentally disagree about the facts under discussion (Senator: “X won’t be in the bill”; Constituent: “You’re lying!”) becomes not just a non-debate, but an anti-debate. Which is to say: a mockery of a debate.