The dog days of summer have been punctuated by a testy national debate over health care reform. Opponents of the so-called "public option" have taken to the airwaves, blogosphere, talk radio, and town halls, placing their proverbial stake in the ground against "socialized medicine." Their detractors, supporters of President Obama's plan, have responded with equal fervor, questioning their credibility, and most of all, the source from whom them take their marching orders. From my vantage point, this focus on the messengers is misguided, for it creates a sideshow from a legitimate debate about a system that encompasses one-sixth of our economy. More importantly, it cuts against the very design of our democratic republic.
James Madison, disguised as "Publius" in Federalist 10, made a case for factions as fundamental to the political framework known as the Constitution as it made its way through the ratification debates. He defined factions as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Considering the existence of factions inevitable, Madison suggested that there were two means of extinguishing them: "one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects." Both are intolerable, he argued, for "the first destroy(s) the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other...giv(es)...every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests."
Moving beyond eradicating factions' causes, Madison suggests that we may only temper their effects. Turning toward the current debate on health care, if the current cacophony of voices "...consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote." Simply stated, the protests will give way to passage of reform legislation, for this is what the majority in America demands.
Madison's argument is premised on the breadth of the "republic," for a regional faction can rarely undermine the public good. Instead, it is through the competition of factions, or from a later era, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes "marketplace of ideas," that the public interest emerges through often turbulent debates. This does not obscure the fact that misinformation like "death panels" and "socialized medicine" have entered the common vernacular, but it is the duty of public option proponents to refute them and make a compelling case for their own position. Furthermore, legitimate questions about the Obama plan are circulating through the marketplace and cannot be summarily dismissed by those who demonize any dissent.
This brings me to my second concern about the excessive focus on the town criers. Whether they take their orders from an organized interest group like FreedomWorks, Rush Limbaugh's radio program, a local listserve, or their own principled opposition to the plan, this combined top-down and grass roots movement is doing nothing more than exercising five freedoms embedded in the famous 45 words written once more by Madison, the First Amendment.
FreedomWorks, of Tax Day Tea Party fame, is led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and financed by big businesses and wealthy conservative scions. However, it stands as a prime example of the factions Madison so passionately defended, and the First Amendment protects our right to associate with this group, or the major labor unions (AFL-CIO and SEIU) turning out members in droves to support Obama's plan at the same town hall meetings.
Rush Limbaugh is exercising freedom of the press when he broadcasts a conservative message to his 20 million listeners. True, he has a galvanizing effect of his "dittoheads," but how is this different than the liberal calling orders issued daily by the New York Times editorial page or MSNBC's Keith Olberman?
Since Obama's ascension to the presidency, conservatives have closed the gap with their counterparts on the left through organizing virally on the Internet and utilizing their freedom of assembly through massive turnout at public events. They learned their lesson from the President himself, who so effectively managed these levers in last year's contest to win the election going away. The Obama-backed Organizing for America relies on his extensive email list from the campaign to take the bully pulpit of the presidency to the masses and circumvent the scrum that is Washington.
The last of these factions are millions of Americans who are at a minimum skeptical of the health care reform bills circulating through Congress and touted by the president. Perhaps their fears are misguided, but demonizing their motivations obscures the national debate that needs to occur. I am not a fan of shouting down one's opponent or disrupting a public meeting, for they damage one's cause and interfere with substantive debate. Rather, civil discourse is my preferred vehicle of conversation. Nonetheless, the First Amendment, if nothing else, was adopted to protect all forms of political speech, in this case petitioning the government (through its representatives) for redress of what they see as real grievances.
Justice William Brennan, a champion of the First Amendment, said that these 45 words represent nothing less than a "profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The latter descriptors are obviously present in the current national health care debate, but as we consider making another "commitment," let's not lose sight of the former, and diminish their enabling vehicle, none other than the First Amendment.