Dispatches from a "Town Hall": Where is the Left?

Late Thursday afternoon, a staff-wide email went out to my union office. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) would host a town hall meeting on healthcare in Chelmsford the coming Saturday morning. Recent reporting about the congressional forums across the country sparked my interest, and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to gauge the nature of these events myself.

The event was moved to City Hall from a supermarket because of expected high attendance. As my vehicle approached the driveway the five cars in front of me all turned in to the parking lot. Right then I realized that not only would I not get into the town hall, but the gathering was as popular as it would be polarizing.

Seventy-five people stood in front of me in line to enter when the police announced that no more would be allowed entry to the 300 person, standing room only event. The elderly couple behind me took this as Rep. Tsongas not wanting to hear debate. The wife said they should hand out a petition for people saying they’d never vote for Tsongas again. Her husband reminded her, however, that they never did cast a ballot for Tsongas. While I question the couples’ event planning experience, they were awfully sweet and made sure to wish me well before they departed.

Unable to attend the forum, I scanned the crowd to hear debate. There were nearly 250 people dying to enter. Of them, I saw only a handful of labor activists. There were several dozen people I assumed were with Organizing for America (Obama’s political operation). The vast majority seemed to be conservative activists, but I use the term “conservative” loosely. These people seem less interested in slow change; they appeared more as the right-wing populist and reactionary wing of American politics. Some might think it even unfair to lump them with the mainstream Republicans. But since when does the GOP care about fairness?

The atmosphere was poisonous. There was no real debate outside. Conversations consisted of ill-informed reactionaries dialoguing with the compromised left. The right-wingers used their nonsensical talking points around “Obamacare” support of euthanasia, rationing, socialism, fascism, etc. Good progressive people (although I didn’t hear anyone for single-payer, much less socialized medicine) attempted to win over the other side. I saw one young filmmaker engaged with five anti-reform activists for nearly twenty minutes. He went up against arguments like “fire departments should be privatized,” “what’s wrong with the system now?” and “I don’t have healthcare or want it.” Afterwards, during asking him if I could get a copy of the film another gentleman came up to us. He said the man who said he did have insurance actually got care from the Veterans’ Administration! I guess he loves socialized medicine, but needed to hide his affections around his conservative buddies.

The anti-reform crowd’s attitude towards organized labor was both negative and funny. I saw two union brothers from the IBEW being heckled by a man. The conversation concluded with “oh, you’re union” to which one replied “yeah, and proud of it!” The reactionary then curtly replied “look at what UAW did to Detroit.” He left before anyone could respond. I later saw him waving an anti-socialist sign. Clearly this capitalist never knew that the autoworkers union had no share in management’s power to design and produce cars that few wanted to buy. What was humorous, too, was the same group that argued with the filmmaker went around asking “where are the union people?” when I was standing right behind them. Evidently, they were totally unfamiliar with my bright purple shirt clearly reading “1199 SEIU.” My height (I’m only 5’3”) and only slightly husky frame must have thrown their “union thug” stereotype for a loop. It reminded me of a comment I heard on staff with YDS: “you kinda small for a union guy.”

The two major problems at this event were the noxious atmosphere and the near complete absence of the radical left. Aside from one comrade from Democratic Socialists of America, I saw no people advocating change who were actual socialists. Sadly, there were nearly a dozen LaRouchites. They were probably the event’s biggest advocates of labeling Obama a Hitleresque leader and equating his healthcare team with National Socialism eugenicists. Without a visible socialist presence, the arguments for decent healthcare reform fell upon the Obama supporters and a handful of universal coverage activists. With no socialists engaging the crowd, the Obama people were the political left. That’s a problem. I also remembered my bitterness at self-righteous radicals from my college days – the people who would berate social democrats and liberals as sellouts, but always be conspicuously absent to battle a conservative. At this gathering, I would have certainly welcomed any revolutionary there challenging those reactionaries. I’d have settled just so someone loudly calling for socialized medicine as in France, too. I wish I’d been more vocal at this event, but I was practically alone in my beliefs. I agree with the recent piece by T. Shelton on the Freedom Road Socialist Organization's website that it’s time for us to stop blaming Democrats for progressive agenda setbacks such as the water downed Employee Free Choice Act. Even if Obama criticizes the liberals who attacked Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NB) for having a lousy position, as a former community organizer the president should remember he needs an organized left demanding more. That will, as much as we hate to admit it, enable some decent reform to happen, even if it’s not single-payer. Until we stand up and get heard, the Palin wing of American politics will destroy another chance to make the lives of working and poor people better.

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