Like most epithets, the u-word says more about the person hurling it than it does about the object of disapproval. So when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called opponents of Democrats' health care reform "un-American" this week, she became the focus of attention, not the vocal protestors at congressional town hall forums. In a column for USA Today, Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer accused those who have showed up at rallies of "drowning out the facts" and pointed to a handful of over-the-top protestors among the many who are genuinely frightened by what the Democrats propose. But the Democrats' name-calling is backfiring.
A USA Today poll finds that a majority of Americans believe that "angry attacks" on proposed health care legislation are examples of "democracy in action," not an "abuse of democracy," and that these protests reflect concerns that "average citizens had well before the meetings took place." Nonetheless, most people don't like opponents who try to shout down supporters. Incivility -- no matter who engages in it -- still isn't popular with the public, but calling people who disagree with you un-American is the ultimate in incivility.
Unfortunately, the Democrats, especially the president, have created the problem they now deplore by trying to run campaign-style rallies around the country to gin up support for health care reform. They've packed halls with union members guaranteed to voice support and then been taken aback at the temerity of others who use similar tactics to organize opposition. If health care reform is going to be decided like an election, no one should be surprised when rhetoric carries the day and "facts" become in dispute. After all, if everyone agreed on the facts, we wouldn't need elections.
President Obama seems to believe that he has a mandate to overhaul the entire health care system. But his timetable -- he originally wanted a bill on his desk before the August congressional recess -- has made genuine debate on the issue difficult. It's no surprise that the public feels railroaded when the president insists he wants to spend more than a trillion dollars and change the way most Americans pay for health care.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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