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No Ignoring Protests

No Ignoring Protests

By David Shribman - August 23, 2009

President Obama will return from his island idyll to a political landscape completely remade. He still will be greeted by swooning crowds and enthusiastic cheers. But his signature domestic policy is weakened, the result of a resurgent Republican Party that only months ago was on life support.

The irony here is that the Republicans played little role in their recovery, and are instead the innocent and passive beneficiaries of a grassroots (and radio-inspired) insurgency that, if they examine it carefully, may yet bite them as fiercely as it has bitten the president and his congressional allies.

But the conservative backlash against Republicans who supported big-government bailouts of the financial-services, insurance and automobile industries may not be evident for another eight or nine months, when primary challenges to GOP lawmakers may provoke political bloodshed. The damage to the Democrats will be evident before school starts.

The administration already is backing away from a government-run health insurance program that was the centerpiece of its plan to overhaul the way Americans receive and pay for medical care, which accounts for almost a fifth of the entire national economy. It is doing so as the president's public-approval ratings are slipping and as lawmakers are discovering that perhaps the blandest of midsummer exercises, the mind-numbing congressional town meeting, suddenly has been transformed into an inferno of anger, some of it real, some of it mainly theatrical, some of it based on legitimate fear and fact, some of it fueled by fantasy and folklore.

This is one of those times when the people are speaking, even if it is not all the people and even if what they are saying is inchoate, inaccurate and irrational. A lot of what the Vietnam moratorium marchers were saying and chanting was inchoate, inaccurate and irrational also. In both cases, the nation paid attention.

This is a good time for a moment's reflection on the power of mass demonstration and mass dissent. These are revered aspects of our system, occurring throughout our history -- the anti-draft rallies of the Civil War period, the marches of the Civil Rights movement -- but they are not democracy. They are freedom of speech. Democracy is when the people rule. Freedom of speech is when people speak.

This is not the only nation where popular movements can be of great moment. There were legitimate mass demonstrations in czarist Russia for peace, bread and democracy, but the Bolshevik Revolution was not a democratic movement. This summer's demonstrations in Tehran following the disputed Iranian election were not an expression of democracy but the manifestations of a yearning for democracy. Just because we dislike one of those movements and like the other one does not change those distinctions.

This summer has seen a nostalgia-tinted retrospective on the Woodstock music festival, now 40 years past. The Wall Street Journal reprinted its woolly editorial from the time, which of course portrayed the revelers as retrogrades, mortal threats to civilization who shared many traits of the swine as they cavorted in the mud. Surely that editorial was reprinted with a mischievous smile and indeed it was a period piece no less than the arrival of a '69 Ford Mustang Mach 1 in a classic car parade.

But embedded in that editorial were excerpts of a speech a University of Pittsburgh English professor, Lawrence Lee, delivered to a Pitt social fraternity 40 years ago. The full text of those remarks is in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives, and our librarian, Angelika Kane, dug them out for me last week. The speech is full of warnings to the youthful protesters of the danger of their actions and charges that they were immature, spoiled, ignorant jerks less experienced and thus less wise than their elders, a theme that perhaps is not so unfamiliar after all, though seldom welcome in student circles. But he also spoke of "mob-students" and the dangers the mob hold for democracy.

History and polling specialists will tell us later whether this summer's town meetings are the voice of the mob or the voice of the people, but it would be foolhardy to deny their importance and their implications. The president and his allies are on the defensive, if not in retreat. This comes at a time when, according to a Gallup Poll taken for USA Today, a strong majority of the public thinks that the stimulus plan cost too much and has achieved too little. Indeed, three out of five Americans indicated that they doubted the stimulus would help the economy in the years ahead.

Let's finish these morning musings on a slightly sunnier note, as befits the season:

There has been more than a touch of the mob in the health care debate thus far. But in our system, we not only have made room for the mob, we also have assured its rights. The mob has rights when it clamors for the end of what it regards as an unjust war, even if its opponents think its ardor has been stirred by outside agitators, and it has rights when it claims that an administration plan for health care is a step toward socialism and tyranny, even when its rivals believe its passion has been manufactured by talk-radio screamers.

But no one on either side of the debate over health care, and the serious problems faced by the 47 million without health insurance, can deny that along with the din of the crowd there is a serious, legitimate debate being conducted in this country this summer, not only about health insurance, but also about the overarching issues of any political system, which can be distilled to these elements: What is the role of government? How is the burden of paying for government distributed? What constitutes national and natural rights?

All of American history is about these three questions. Whether in town meetings, in the legislative chambers of Capitol Hill, in your neighborhood coffee shop or around your kitchen table, Americans are debating how big government should be, who should pay for health care, and whether medical care is to be a national right. This may be the summer of the mob, but it is also the summer of the big questions, and the elusive answers.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com)

Copyright 2009, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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