The Republicans' responsibility to American democracy

In recent days, Democrats have charged that the Republicans are behind an organized faux-grassroots movement aimed at derailing the healthcare initiatives of the Obama Administration. Some evidence, disputed by the GOP, has surfaced supporting this claim. The meetings are well-attended, but individuals are often seen shouting down supporters of healthcare reform. Some have been arrested, others have been assaulted, and there have even been cases of people showing up with firearms. The television pictures have occasionally been downright alarming, leading House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to write a devastating Op-Ed charging that those shouting shown proponents of the Obama plan are acting in an “un-American” fashion.

Right-wing talk-show hosts have countered with charges that Democrats are stifling debate and using scare tactics to prevent any real dissent by inciting citizens to report on reform opponents. They argue further that the Obama campaign apparatus is in full force to boost turnouts at these town hall meetings and that other leftist groups are exploiting the Internet to falsely discredit the “grassroots” groups. The situation is increasingly chaotic just as the Congressional summer recess is beginning.

It is becoming more difficult to assess which side is acting responsibly as the volume rises. The Democrats deserve some blame because they have not taken control with their agenda. Some would go as far as to claim they have abandoned it altogether. People are arguing over parts of different bills which are in different stages of approval. Sound confusing? It certainly is and the opposition has effectively exploited that confusion by making specious arguments against any reform plan.

The talk of “death panels” (courtesy of Sarah Palin’s Facebook page), the charges of health rationing, the suggestions that a public servant will stand between a doctor and his or her patient, and the use of the Canadian system as the bogeyman by a pro-Republican group—all suggest that the irrational has taken over. No wonder people are screaming and attacking their Congressmen and Senators. Incomplete and false information does not serve the purpose of an enlightened democratic debate.

The Republicans have recently taken to calling Obama a “socialist,” Glen Beck calls him a “racist,” and Rush Limbaugh has compared Democracts to Nazis. Add to this the silliness coming from the “birther” movement and we are far from conducting an exercise in healthy and productive public discourse. Name calling, distortions, scare tactics, and meeting disruptions have dominated the current climate. For this, Republicans should shoulder a large part of the blame. In a democracy, an opposition party must do more than just oppose—it must propose alternatives, point to the weaknesses in the proposals of a governing party, and contribute responsibly to the dialogue necessary to advance the common interest. Unfortunately, the Republicans are stuck in ‘oppose’-mode and seem not to care about contributing to the reform of what most agree is a broken system.

Many right wing bloggers and talking heads like Beck and Limbaugh react strongly to any potential search for compromise or accommodation with the Democrats. It may be  politics to drown out the opposition, but is it good politics to drown out the opposition within their own party? Where are the caring, compassionate conservatives who believe in healthcare reform, the ones who understand that leaving 47 million people uninsured is intolerable, and who have over the years supported Medicare and Medicaid? Where are the moderate Republicans who have successfully fought for reforms to child healthcare at the state level? People like Orrin Hatch, Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Mitt Romney—all bonafide conservatives—dare say nothing out of fear of the wrath of Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly and Limbaugh. The GOP is deservedly a proud party but it is being hijacked by narrow ideologues. It is no longer viable to blame the current disarray on the aftermath of the Obama victory. Republicans lost badly in 1964 but worked to pass Medicare, Medicaid and civil rights in 1965.

American democracy has best been served through a battle between healthy, alternative points of view. The two-party system is more than two labels or two organizations. It is a collection of different points of view acting in the common and public interest. In the early years, federalists like John Adams were able to have a reasoned debate with Democratic Republican Thomas Jefferson on the nature of federalism. JFK and Nixon were able to debate cold war policy differences without sacrificing national security. Ronald Reagan was able to govern for two terms by striking deals with a liberal partisan Democrat like Speaker Tip O’Neill. But today, far-right Republicans condemn a young moderate like Megan McCain, the daughter of John McCain, and ask whether she should remain in the party.

The GOP is now primarily a southern-based, white male party—hardly a demographic that will lead it to majority support. Yes, Democrats bear some responsibility for the current context but, unlike the Republicans, they actually have something to lose. The GOP, on the other hand, appears fixated on salting the earth instead of working to produce policies that go beyond narrow ideological interests. American democracy thrives in a healthy two-party system. Right now, the Republicans are not carrying their weight and it shows.

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