Any one paying attention to the news media’s coverage of the health care town halls across the country could be forgiven for assuming they all must be full of loud, gun-toting talk-radio disciples who would all very much like to see Obama’s long-form birth certificate. In actuality there are plenty of these town halls in which all the participants carry on peacefully and civilly. Unfortunately, the town hall I attended in Missouri’s state capital on August 26th was definitely not one of those. The conversations I had with health care opponents outside were civil enough, even if they were full of inane observations like, “Ya know, Hitler liked socialized medicine, too!” (This, from someone who gleefully supported rounding up “illegals.”) However, once we got inside and the show began, it was a whole different story.
The event was moderated by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, and the first question she heard was from an honest citizen who was just genuinely concerned about the ‘death panels.’ McCaskill expressed her own genuine concern that anybody still believed in this as she explained the difference between forced execution and end-of-life counseling. Despite the Senator’s patient, rational response debunking the ridiculous rumor, I could still here people behind me repeatedly insist that she had somehow dodged the question. Later, Dixie, a woman literally red in the face with anger, demanded to know why the hell Congress was even considering any kind of universal health care when Medicare and Medicaid are such obvious failures. The health care opponents roared in approval. McCaskill responded by asking how many people in the crowd were covered by Medicare, and roughly a fourth of the audience raised their hands. She then asked who among them wanted to give up their Medicare. “Me! I do!” one man shouted as he furiously waved his hand, though most of the other conservatives were more ambivalent.
There were also plenty of universal health care advocates in attendance. They seemed to outnumber the health care opponents, though not by much, and certainly not by volume. Our behavior was decidedly more civil, though we definitely made some noise whenever Senator McCaskill spoke of her support for a public option, when she criticized health insurance companies and when she made clear that any taxes raised to pay for expanded government coverage would come from the wealthy. Still, universal health care proponents never matched the virulent rage of the opposing crowd.
Still, despite of all their angry shouting, Senator McCaskill made appeals to the conservatives in the audience. For one, she repeatedly noted her pledge to vote against any health care reform bill that was not deficit neutral. She made it clear she opposed instituting a single payer system. She also pledged to oppose any measure to include coverage for elective abortions, but when one woman asked in response if she would oppose covering Viagra, McCaskill totally missed the point. Instead of seriously addressing the sexually discriminating nature of such a pledge, she joked about how embarrassed the questioner’s husband must be. This is after she seriously answered a question about death panels, mind you. Finally, in what was perhaps the most chilling episode of the evening, McCaskill promised to continue her support for the anti-immigrant and ethnically discriminative e-verify system, to which the conservatives in the crowd gave a roaring standing ovation.
Despite these appeals, the conservatives still jeered loudly when Senator McCaskill noted they would soon enough get the chance to vote her out of office. In the end, it didn’t seem that anyone was leaving the town hall with a different view of health care reform than they had coming in.
As I walked out of the town hall myself, a man, noticing my Jobs With Justice “Health care for All” sticker, asked me if I really wanted socialism. “Heck yeah!” I replied, prompting nearby woman to warn, “You don’t know what socialism is!” If only she knew.