August 15, 2009

Senator Arlen Specter Actually Gets Through and Makes Contact

Like most people, I've seen news clips of town halls, including a bit where it appears someone has approached Senator Arlen Specter and is basically yelling at him.

But then I actually watched the video of the Lebanon, Pennsylvania town hall of the 11th, and more than just 10 or 20 minutes.

What I saw was an entirely different outcome than the news clips suggest.

The news pieces left me with the impression the meetings are basically overwhelming anger dominating and leaving little room for any detail in discussion. It appears the angry groups have gotten their people in the door first, and few are present that haven't been egged on by circulating emails to the effect of stand-up-for-America-before-it-is-destroyed, before they euthanize relatives, impose socialism, etc., ad nauseam.

But the real outcome of Specter's town hall of the 11th is far more interesting and complex than such news reports suggest.


First, let me point out the idea that America is being destroyed by big Government is an old, old idea. In the mid 70s, when my father would sometimes drive me to school (6 miles), we would hear "Eddie" on the radio at 7:45 or 8:00 each morning. The rant of Mad Eddie was a dead ringer for a compressed Rush Limbaugh rant 20 years later. It would make sense that people like Limbaugh were formed by people like Mad Eddie -- "I'm mad too, Eddie" was his tag line. I hardly need to lay out what Eddie said. It sounded like a more practiced version of what these people in Specter's town halls were saying much of the time.

The process of people getting to this mindset is simple enough. You have a situation where many blue collar jobs have been destroyed by change and by "free trade" which is actually subsidized imports that take jobs, leaving stagnantly lower-wage jobs to pay for ever-escalating mortgage and health costs over the decades. The resulting middle-class squeeze is very real. So the experience of people that listen to these anger-based radio programs is that there is plenty to be angry about -- American life has become very difficult and precarious. The idealized America of their dreams has been assaulted, and feels like it is being destroyed. It's no joke.

The radio talk shows then try to focus that anger on some identifiable target, with simple repetitive ideas that can be learned like mantras. The talk shows live and die by whether they can keep their audiences interested, piqued.

It's no accident that this connects to "taxes." It's about being able to survive, financially.

There is more detail I could add on this psychology and resulting mindset, but this post is about the surprising town hall of Arlen Specter on August 11th.


If you watch the meeting, you see Specter is the one that moves up to the person talking to him. You see that Specter is quite able to handle difficult situations. You see that Specter handles some of the most difficult questions easily.

The first eye-opening surprise to me was at 15 minutes in the video, where Specter is asked about health care reform forcing everyone to help pay for abortions -- "kill her unborn baby" -- he doesn't simply go to the easy response that federal money does not support abortions or that he doesn't favor abortions, etc.

Instead, Specter does the difficult -- he explains you can be in a plan that doesn't pay for abortions, or a plan that does, by your own choice! He moves right on, question done. At this point, I'm realizing Specter is rather brave.

The audience is clearly and overwhelmingly a very reactionary talk-radio sort of group. But Specter doesn't ease around anything, or use qualifiers.

Immediately next, he's asked about Single Payer -- "Are you for a Single Payer system? Will you vote for a bill that would make a Single-Payer system either through the bill or in the future."

It's clearly a point-blank ideological challenge question.

Specter: "I'm prepared to keep Single-Payer on the table as a matter of consideration and flexibility.... I know the public opinion polls are high in support of Single-Payer. I know that." [Loud boos and heckling]

So, at this point the audience is starting to get it -- Specter isn't really afraid. They are not intimidating him. The shout-down didn't work. The challenge question didn't work. The "kill-the-baby" didn't work.

They haven't cowed Specter.

The questions then change tack, a lot of different strategies. Specter answers well and reasonably.

For instance after 20 minutes: "...What are you going to do to restore this country back to what our founders created, according to the Constitution"? (big applause)

After 54 minutes we get the assertion that the reform will "write off" a 74-yr-old with cancer because they will no longer be a working tax-payer -- euthanasia.

Specter doesn't use kid gloves in response. Specter: "Well, you're just not right. Nobody who's 74 is going to be written off because they have cancer. That's a vicious, malicious, untrue rumor! Who's got the next number?!"

The amazing thing in all of this -- Specter, by this time, is actually communicating with what were strongly closed minds.

Closed minds got a direct face to face experience that opened them a little.

Even though it appears the minds remain closed, I know better. Will these individuals support this health care reform? Of course not. Many of this talk-radio mindset have heard probably 4, 5, or more assertions against reform they've believed. If they now doubt 1 or 2, that still leaves at least 2 or 3 they believe.

But a more important kind of opening happened. They got a chance to actually hear a face-to-face response by someone they have to admit they have at least a little in common with clearly say that a talk-radio lie they've heard is "untrue."

That gives these individuals a chance to make their own worldview more complex and a few, a few, will go further, and read more widely or think new thoughts.

The first step in changing Fear and it's fellow travelers of Anger and Rumor is to actually think a new thought. I have no doubt Specter will put a few people into thought.

That's quite an accomplishment.

They actually have to face the fact that Specter thinks differently here, and is real, and has a lot in common with themselves. Don't believe me? Listen after 103 minutes.

In fact, anyone will find a good perspective by listening to everything after 103 minutes.

Listen to the whole part with the man in the white T-shirt from 108 minutes on -- "I'm laid off....electric rates will necessarily skyrocket {a cap-and-trade distortion, rates skyrocketed already}...we have no more money...I can't even put food on the table....We have no money." Exactly. Even the people that are working feel agreement.

"The people in this room want their country back."

Yes, they want to be able to live, work and manage to put food on the table.


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