The Cash Fueling the Crowds

08townhall.large5 (1)Dauphin Island The biggest threat to a democracy is the latent fear of the people, which allows politicians, policy makers, and special interests to conspire to deprive them of any ability to impact events through voice or vote.  We are deluged by evidence today.

Here’s one from a political scientist quoted in the Times:

“We’re living in the era of the viral town meeting,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who once worked as a Senate aide. “I remember back in the ’70s getting identically worded telegrams in the thousands. What’s happened now is the technology of protest has metastasized, and it threatens to overwhelm the relationship between members of Congress and their constituents.”

Professor Baker doesn’t comment on the ineffectiveness of such communication or protest, though it is implicit in his remarks, nor does he clarify what he believes is the “relationship” of elected officials to citizens, though one gathers he wants some distance to it.

Another professor from Princeton in another article in the Times commenting on the robustness of the local meetings was similarly confused:

Accusations of phony grassroots campaigns — “Astroturf,” in Washington argot — also are not new. When Richard Viguerie, the conservative strategist, pioneered the use of direct mail to raise money in the 1970s, he quickly came under attack for creating “the impression of a mass uprising when there were organizers behind it,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University.

But last week’s “town brawls,” as the news media dubbed them, do seem to represent a shift. Instead of each side’s holding rallies and protests, the activism seemed directed personally at lawmakers, with the aim of overwhelming them. Mr. Kratovil, the Maryland Democrat, opposes the health care legislation moving through the House. But he was unable to get his point across, he said. “They simply want to yell when you talk.”

Some might call it democracy in action, but there is a risk. If the pattern continues, lawmakers could grow suspicious, refusing to believe that their encounters with voters are genuine.

“When a politician can’t tell what’s grassroots and what’s Astro, that’s dangerous,” Mr. Zelizer said. “In the long term, that could undermine the potential of grassroots mobilizers to change things. At a certain point, it’s crying wolf. No one is going to believe it’s real.”

If elected officials cannot judge reality at their base, then isn’t it fair to say, that they should neither be politicians or re-elected.

Frank Rich, the op-ed columnist for the Times seems to see it more clearly than the good professors.  It’s not really about people and the grassroots, but about money being funneled from the healthcare special interests.  And for all of the hullabaloo about “fake” protests, there should be real protests about this kind of cash register politics and the politicians that are practicing it.

As Democrats have pointed out, the angry hecklers disrupting town-hall meetings convened by members of Congress are not always ordinary citizens engaging in spontaneous grass-roots protests or even G.O.P. operatives, but proxies for corporate lobbyists. One group facilitating the screamers is FreedomWorks, which is run by the former Congressman Dick Armey, now a lobbyist at the DLA Piper law firm. Medicines Company, a global pharmaceutical business, has paid DLA Piper more than $6 million in lobbying fees in the five years Armey has worked there.

But the Democratic members of Congress those hecklers assailed can hardly claim the moral high ground. Their ties to health care interests are merely more discreet and insidious. As Congressional Quarterly reported last week, industry groups contributed almost $1.8 million in the first six months of 2009 alone to the 18 House members of both parties supervising health care reform, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer among them.

Then there are the 52 conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who have balked at the public option for health insurance. Their cash intake from insurers and drug companies outpaces their Democratic peers by an average of 25 percent, according to The Post. And let’s not forget the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which has raked in nearly $500,000 from a single doctor-owned hospital in McAllen, Tex. — the very one that Obama has cited as a symbol of runaway medical costs ever since it was profiled in The New Yorker this spring.

Something like healthcare reform with clear benefits of millions should be easy to understand at the level of basic national values.  Fear of the people and the filter of money distorting what politicians are allowed – or willing – to hear are threatening any claims we might have to democracy, not a couple of rowdies and robust dissent at town hall meetings.

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