Mob Rule Takes Over The Health Debate

August 12, 2009|By Paul R. Grenier

According to press reports, certain demonstrators, enraged that Congress wants to reform America's dysfunctional health insurance system, have adopted the tactics of the mob. These tactics have taken the form of brawls at town hall meetings, the hanging of a congressman in effigy, even threats.

It would be easy to simply dismiss the perpetrators of these ugly incidents, to label them fools and scoundrels manipulated by corporate elites and right-wing lobby groups. But that would only prompt those who label these same groups "heroes" and "freedom fighters" to slam the door and walk away.

What we need, however, are not labels, but analysis - an analysis of the mob phenomenon and what it tells us about our nation. From there, with any luck, we may find ourselves in a better position to strengthen our wobbly democracy.

What we are dealing with here is a mob, and not a thoughtful new brand of American revolutionary. Instead of thought, these groups indulge in the flinging of slogans ("No to socialized medicine!") whose function is to wear down the enemy. As a leaked memo from Bob MacGuffie, a volunteer with the Freedom Works web site Tea Party Patriots put it: "Try to rattle [the congressman], not have an intelligent debate."

Equally irrational is their claim to be against Big Government. Did any of these groups protest against Big Government when it was illegally tapping our phones and denying habeas corpus rights, to name just a few of the excesses of the previous administration?

What we confront, then, in the anti-reform mobs, are people who approve of coercion and lawlessness, including when it is used by a strong leader, but who disapprove of representative government in service to the welfare, the interests, of the majority. This mimics several of the characteristics Hannah Arendt discovered in the mobs that brought totalitarianism to the modern world.

Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" represents the seminal work on that subject - and it also provides our best analysis of the mob, a phenomenon with which totalitarianism is intimately connected.

What defines the mob is that it has given up on the idea of interests, including self-interest. The mob, which is composed of socially marginal figures, feels that it has no representation in the halls of government, and this feeling may be entirely accurate.

The mob is active, it is angry and it wants to be noticed, perhaps even to go down in history. It is willing to sacrifice everything, including self-interest!

In Germany of the 1930s, the mob at first was the plaything of military and industrial elites. Then the mob - or rather, its leader - took over.

To be sure, comparisons with Nazi Germany can be overused, especially by the left, but this should not distract us from one of Arendt's most important insights - that totalitarianism is a permanent danger to the modern world.

Arendt insisted that totalitarianism does not belong to the past. It is a tendency within the modern world itself, with its mass society, baffling complexity and rampant loneliness. Mass society - which also has a rather tenuous representation in government - is always pregnant with potential mobs.

Mass society floats adrift in the modern world. Uprooted from tradition, culture, even the family, it easily falls victim to ideologies that offer pat answers to every question and that offer a fake unity bought by the cheapest of all currencies - hatred of a common enemy. Such an enemy, for example, as "liberal elites," who want "socialized, big government health care."

It goes without saying that mobs must never be indulged. Nor is it possible to engage the irrational in debate. What can be done, however, is to convince mass society that representative government sometimes does indeed serve their best interests and welfare.

To that end, it is vital that Congress pass a bill that genuinely serves the interests of the large majority of the public, one that does not cater to the permanent lobby of the rich and the well connected. No question is more important to Americans than their medical care.

To be sure, even the most thoughtful reform of health care will only give us some breathing room during which we will need to tackle the larger dilemmas of democracy faced with mass society and the ever-waiting mob.

Paul R. Grenier, a writer, translator and cultural geographer from Kensington, is the founder of The Common Task. His e-mail is

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