Town Hall Democracy or Mob Hysteria? Rethinking the Importance of the Public Sphere
Wednesday 26 August 2009
by: Henry A. Giroux, t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Protesters outside of a health care town hall meeting. (Photo: AP)
The bitter debate that is unfolding over Obama's health care plan has garnered a great deal of media attention. The images are both familiar and disturbing - members of Congress are shouted down, taunted, hanged in effigy and, in some instances, received death threats. In some cases, mob scenes have produced violence and resulted in a number of arrests. Increasingly, people are showing up with guns at these meetings, revealing an intimate connection between an embrace of violence, politics and an unbridled hatred of both the public sphere and the conditions for real exchange, debate and dialogue over important social issues. Rowdy crowds, many of whom read from talking points made available to them by right-wing groups and legitimated by conservative television pundits, support a politics reminiscent of the proto-fascists movements and militia associated with authoritarian parties in the 1930s and 1970s, which often used them to disrupt oppositional meetings, beat up opponents and intimidate those individuals and groups that criticized right-wing ideologies. This is not meant to suggest that all of the protesters at these meetings are members of extremists groups as much as it is to reveal the deep historical affinity such mob tactics have with dangerous authoritarian tendencies - an ironic twist given that their invective of choice is to compare Obama with Hitler. Many of these fringe groups "leaping around the margins of American society,"  are irresponsibly sanctioned by both politicians such as Republican Sen. Tom Coburn and right-wing television hosts such as Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.  The United States is neither Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, nor does it bear a resemblance to Pinchot's Chile. What is important to recognize in light of these violent tendencies in the culture is Hannah Arendt's prescient warning that elements of totalitarianism continue to be with us and that rather than relegated to the dustbin of history, the "still existing elements of totalitarianism would be more likely to crystallize into new forms."  These tendencies have been around for the last 20 years in the form of militarism, religious fundamentalism, a rabid economic Darwinism and a growing violence against the poor, immigrants, dissenters, and others marginalized because of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, politics and color. What is new under the Obama regime is that the often hidden alliance between corporate power and the forces of extremism are now both celebrated and highly visible in the culture. What is new is that the production of violence and the organized attempts to undermine the most basic principles of democracy are now embraced, if not showcased, as a register of patriotism and then offered up as a spectacle in much of the mainstream media. Under such circumstances, politics is emptied of any substance as citizens are urged to participate in the public sphere by shutting it down - screaming inane slogans in order to cancel out the very process of political participation. Shaming and silencing those who are at odds with right-wing and corporate power and its orthodox and increasing reactionary views of the world has now become a national pastime, or as the fatuous Glenn Beck would claim, just common sense.
Some have referred to these groups as mobs, but that distinction does not hold since many of the protesters are being fed talking points and are well organized to target very specific Democratic Congressional representatives. Mob rule is often spontaneous, while these rowdy, gun-toting and increasingly violent groups are being organized and legitimated through the money and power of the insurance industry, lobbying groups such as FreedomWorks, anti-government politicians, racist fringe groups and elements of the white militia. They are generally uninformed, politically illiterate and harbor an acute disdain for debate, thoughtfulness and dialogue. In other words, they disdain critical exchange and view as a pathology any vestige of Democratic governance, politics and representation. They are part of a fringe element within the GOP that has moved increasingly from the margins to the center of power. 
The media has often focused, if not cashed in, on the rowdiness of these groups - treating them as simply angry citizens with a point of view as opposed to being members of a deeply authoritarian campaign organized not only to disrupt Obama's health care reforms but also to gut and destroy those spaces in American society where democracy can be nourished. Such groups have to be understood as being mobilized not merely to promote symbolic and real violence, but also as a growing movement that promotes a willful misreading of the meaning of the freedom, security and human rights. What is crucial to recognize is that the groups who are shouting out and disrupting health care meetings are also the same people who want to privatize and corporatize public schooling, eliminate all vestiges of the social state and destroy all remnants of those public spheres that promote critical literacy, civic courage and those noncommodified values that give meaning to a democracy. These are the folks who supported members of the Florida Legislature to pass a law that outlawed historical interpretation in its public schools.  These are the same groups for whom any vestige of education that promotes critical thinking, citizenship skills and effective democracy is condemned or, worse, simply relegated to the dustbin of educational practices. It is impossible to understand what these groups represent unless they are seen as part of an authoritarian tradition that has gained enormous strength in the last 20 years as part of a broader effort to expand the corporate state, militarize everyday life, criminalize the effects of social problems, eviscerate any viable notion of the social, govern society through the laws of the marketplace and destroy those public spaces where norms and Democratic values are produced and constantly renewed.
Viewed primarily as either an economic investment or with unadulterated disdain, the public sphere is being undermined as a central Democratic space for fostering the citizen-based processes of deliberation, critical exchange and dialogue. The important notion that space can be used to cultivate citizenship is now transformed by a new "common sense" that links it almost entirely to the production of consumers or to a pathologized space that bears the imprint of immigrants and those others now viewed with contempt by the nativism of right-wing groups and their televised spokespersons. The inevitable correlate to this logic is that providing space for democracy to grow is no longer a priority. As theorists such as Jurgen Habermas and David Harvey have argued, the idea of critical citizenship cannot flourish without the reality of public space.  Put differently, "the space of citizenship is as important as the idea of citizenship."  As a political category, the public sphere and public space are crucial to any critical understanding of how power circulates, how disciplinary practices are constructed and how social control is organized. Public space as a political category performs invaluable theoretical work in connecting ideas to civic responsibility, theories to concrete practices and politics to the concerns of everyday life. Without public space, it becomes more difficult for individuals to imagine themselves as political agents or to understand the necessity for developing a discourse capable of defending civic institutions. Public space confirms the idea of individuals and groups having a public voice, thus drawing a distinction between civic liberty and market liberty. The demands of citizenship affirm the social as a political concept in opposition to its conceptualization as a strictly economic category.
The sanctity of the traditional town hall or public square in American life is grounded in the crucial recognition that citizenship has to be cultivated in noncommercialized spaces, informed by noncommercial civic values. Such spaces mark both the importance of the public and the need for spheres where reason prevails against the forces supporting civic illiteracy, violence and mob rule. Indeed, democracy itself needs public spheres where education as a condition for democracy can be renewed, where people can meet, and Democratic identities, values and relations have the time "to grow and flourish."  The organized disruptions organized against town meetings should not cancel out, but renew the historical importance of public spaces for nourishing civic discourses and engaging citizens as well as the consequences of the current disappearance of noncommodified spheres as significant spaces in which powerful states, corporations, groups and individuals can be held directly accountable for the ethical and material effects of their decisions.
I don't think it is far fetched to suggest that the hostile town meetings we have been witnessing in the last few weeks are symptomatic of a growing intolerance and authoritarianism in the United States mobilized through an ongoing culture of fear and a form of patriotic correctness designed to bolster a rampant nationalism and a selective popularism. Authoritarianism is rooted in an appeal to irrationality, trades in simplistic slogans and cultivates fear and insecurity. One consequence of such a move is the demise of the promise of a vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life, increasingly manifested in the inability of a society to question itself, engage in critical dialogue and translate private problems into social issues. This is a position that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In a post 9/11 world, the space of shared responsibility has given way to the space of private fears and larger corporate interests. Politics is now mediated through a spectacle of mob rule in which fear and violence become the only modalities through which to grasp the meaning of the self and larger social relations. As the public collapses into highly charged narratives of personal anger, reason is uncoupled from freedom and the triumph of civic illiteracy, suggesting that irrational mob rule becomes "the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence." 
Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed - and the social order increasingly mimics a giant reality TV show where public concerns register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, violent outbursts and an unchecked hatred for dissent and dialogue. Most importantly, as everyday politics is decoupled from its Democratic moorings, it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into public concerns and collective action.
As the social is devalued and public discourse and politics disappear only to be replaced by unruly mobs emboldened by the right-wing celebrities and politicians "to become part of the mob," "shout out" and "rattle" speakers, what emerges is not simply an ugly display of individuals and groups mobilized by lobbyist-run groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. On the contrary, more than health care reform is under attack. What is truly under attack is any vestige of a Democratic society that is at odds with a free-market fundamentalism and the financial and economic interests that benefit from it.
Politics takes many forms, but central to it is the need for individuals, groups and social movements to be able to translate individual problems into public concerns, to have informed opinions and to create spaces where power is held accountable. The town hall fiascoes are important, but they are only symptomatic of a larger assault against the social contract, the social state, public spheres and Democratic governance. And when read in this context, the challenge presented by these manufactured spectacles can be used to raise the level of the analysis and public conversation about the historical, economic and political context which has nourished them and what must be done to address the larger threat and problems they pose to American democracy. Clearly, any response to such outbursts must be seen as part of a broader effort to address the importance of critical education, civic literacy, social responsibility as well as the need to raise important questions about what education and civic literacy should accomplish in a democracy and what might such a politics capable of taking up this issue look like.
 Chris Hedges, "This Isn't Reform, It's Robbery," TruthDig.com (August 24, 2009).
Online at: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20090823_this_isnt_reform_its_robbery/
 Frank Rich, "The Guns of August," New York Times (August 23, 2009), p. Wk8.
 Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, "What Arendt Matters" (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 46. Of course, this issue is taken up by Hannah Arendt in her classic, "Origins of Totalitarianism" . Revised edition (New York: Schocken, 2004).
 See Adele M. Stan, "Inside Story on Town Hall Riots: Right-Wing Shock Troops Do Corporate America's Dirty Work," AlterNet (August 10, 2009).
Online at: http://www.alternet.org/module/printvesion/141860
 The literature on the politics of space is far too extensive to cite, but of special interest are Michael Keith and Steve Pile, eds. "Place and the Politics of Identity" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Doreen Massey, "Space, Place, and Gender" (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994); and Margaret Kohn, "Radical Space: Building the House of the People" (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).
 Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, "A Politics of Time and Space," Tikkun 18.6 (2003), pp. 17-19.
 Kaiser, pp. 17-18.
 Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, "Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming," Public Culture 12, no. 2 (Duke University Press, 2000), pp. 305-306.
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