“Now Don’t You Let the Government Get a Hold of My Medicare”

...and other absurdities of fact-free town halls

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.

Jon Stewart, in this week’s “Healther Skelter” segment of The Daily Show, found that out for himself after his live audience cheered, enthusiastically, the notion of taking Glenn Beck off the air—while, on the video that that audience was watching, town hall participants jeered, vehemently, at the same idea. “While you were cheering,” Stewart said, in his most sardonic tone, “you perhaps missed, on the tape…uh: they were booing. How we’re gonna straddle this thing—I feel like I’m gonna get a groin pull. Are things that simple? ‘Glenn Beck: Yay!’ ‘Turn off Glenn Beck: Boo…’ ‘Football: Yay!’ ‘Soccer: Booo…’ ‘Abbot: Yay!’ ‘Costello: Boo…’”

But, then, the phenomenon we’re witnessing isn’t merely a matter of reduction, not merely a matter of polarization. On the surface, sure, we can attribute the town halls’ demise of decorum to the potent combination of Astroturfing—“Saul Alinsky tactics,” per the latest meme—and classic propaganda techniques: two distinctive influence machines that stifle democratic discussion by alternately silencing it and skewering it. The problem is deeper than that, though. Because we’ve moved beyond merely differing opinions—beyond even fundamentally oppositional opinions—and settled instead upon a much more unsettling proposition: differing facts in the first place.

“One of the problems that I have is that those who get their information from sources like FOX News have a completely different perception and have a different set of facts than those who get their information from MSNBC,” the political message-maker Frank Luntz noted, discussing the healthcare debate in a recent episode of On the Media. Now, Luntz said, “listeners can quite possibly reject everything that I say because their sources are completely different. It’s a real problem, and it actually encourages much more extreme language as people try to play to their base.”

Indeed. What Luntz was describing is a world that is on its way to becoming—to use the phrase used by Farhad Manjoo in his recent book, True Enough—a “post-fact society.” A world that threatens to loosen our hold on the one thing that, regardless of what else might divide us, promised to hold us together: reality itself. Increasingly, Manjoo writes,

our arguments aren’t over what we should be doing—in the Iraq War, in the war of terrorism, on global warming, or about any number of controversial subjects—but, instead, over what is happening. Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now…the creeping partisanship has begun to distort our very perceptions about what is “real” and what isn’t. Indeed, you can go as far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built out of our own facts.

Sounds familiar, right? As in: not a doomsday scenario so much as a sober assessment of our current condition? A world of rhetorical rootlessness isn’t a new phenomenon; as Manjoo points out, it’s something that’s been brewing ever since the Web exploded the distribution channels available to both good-faith content producers and more perniciously motivated propaganda-mongers. (And the broader social phenomenon that fueled that explosion—a broad mistrust of “the mainstream media”—has, of course, been brewing since long before the Web came along.) But our movement toward a “post-fact” political landscape is particularly evident in the healthcare debate—a national discourse that, with its murky terms and heated rhetoric, doubles as a kind of propagandistic Petri dish.

Take, again, the town halls—in which so many angry audience members moved beyond the classic political accusation—you’re spinning—to a more pernicious one: you’re lying. While that isn’t, on its own, a novel accusation—citizens, of course, have accused politicians of untruth before, mostly because politicians have given them ample cause to do so—what is new is the blanket nature of the indictment. And the framing of the mistrust not in terms of bias, but in terms of truth itself. I don’t trust you. In other words: It’s not so much that I disagree with you, it’s that I will systematically refuse to believe anything you say. The declarations we’ve seen at the town halls haven’t been, generally, singular allegations; they’ve been broad. (“Everything the State says is a lie,” Nietzsche said, “and everything it has it has stolen.”) And, to a large extent, those allegations haven’t been specimens of reason so much as symptoms, apparently, of inarticulate outrage that has finally found an outlet for expression. “Now don’t you let the government get a hold of my Medicare,” and all that.

Taken together, these expressions of mistrust filter to something even deeper than cognitive dissonance. Call it cognitive dissociation.

“When we disagree,” President Obama said during his own town hall in New Hampshire yesterday afternoon, “let’s disagree over things that are real—not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.” But that simple suggestion—that basic call for, you know, reality—isn’t, in today’s world, as simple as it seems. On the contrary, it’s frustratingly, and in some senses tragically, difficult to realize. The rumors running rampant through the recent town halls—so often sprouted from seeds planted by talk radio and hyper-partisan Web sites and the like—ratify what we’ve known for some time: that the mainstream media are slowly losing the broad reach they used to enjoy. Even if they could overcome their baser instincts—he said/she said, love-of-conflict, spectacle-over-substance, etc.—to provide sober, informative, contextualized, and generally fair coverage…there’s still no guarantee that their voices would be loud enough to drown out the white noise of vitriol.

The challenge, then—if we accept the likelihood that the healthcare debate will continue to play out as a screaming match—is to ensure that the facts will simply make more noise than the fictions. If we fail in that, the future of much more than healthcare will be at stake. Democracy, George Bernard Shaw had it, “is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” And if we abandon ourselves to a culture that treats “things that are real” as a choice to be made rather than a truth to be shared—then we can be fairly certain that, in the end, we’ll get exactly what we deserve.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.