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Town Halls Show Participatory Democracy Best Hope of Saving Obamacare and Country

Despite the reluctance of many establishment Republicans, such as Paul Ryan, to support Donald Trump’s candidacy for President, for the most part Republicans, like Ryan, have now rallied behind Trump, largely because they see an opportunity to push through the legislation and policies for which they have long salivated but had been unable to approve during the Obama presidency.

The distaste for Trump largely seems to be a response to his political Tourette’s syndrome: he gives voice in an uncensored language to the brutally racist, sexist, anti-poor, and anti-working-class values of the GOP.

Despite the fact that Trump claims to have “the best words,” Republicans tended to distance themselves from his rhetoric while quietly champing at the bit to have a puppet in the White House to smooth a path of no resistance for their objective of funneling taxpayer money away from serving the millions of average citizens who pay taxes to the wealthiest one percent who seem fiscally insatiable.

Most particularly, Republicans have long looked forward to repealing and, supposedly, replacing Obamacare, having voted some 62 times or more (estimates vary) in Congress to repeal it during the Obama administration.

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So what is happening now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress and effectively own a White House enthusiastically poised to obliterate the Affordable Care Act, one of the most sweeping and transformative pieces of legislation in American history?

Democracy is happening, in both participatory and representational terms, making clear that the political hopes of the nation’s working-class majority, including those who voted for Trump, reside, as President Obama reminded us in his farewell speech, in the people – in us.

Recently, in the pages of PoliticusUSA, I wrote that Trump’s Presidency has been in large part an assault on dissent itself and the process of deliberative democracy as imagined by our founders and which James Madison articulated most sharply and profoundly.

The recent uprisings at Republican town halls, however, are demonstrating the power of the people to withstand and turn back that assault and to encourage a more reasoned and deliberate approach to addressing the healthcare needs of the American majority.

Take Joni Ernst, for example, elected as part of the GOP 2014 Senatorial class. She ran on a vociferous pledge to repeal “Obamacare” immediately, as portrayed in a notorious political ad featuring her wielding a firearm and literally shooting down the act. But, as Burgess Everett has reported in Politico, she now “is using the word ‘deliberative’ when describing her state of mind about replacing Obamacare.”

Ernst and others among her Republican colleagues are more than just getting cold feet about their weddedness to repealing the ACA; they are feeling the intense heat of the voting public, putting the proverbial feet of their elected representatives to the fire.

Veteran Senator Chuck Grassley, who infamously misrepresented the ACA in inflammatory terms, charging the act would result in death panels making decisions about your grandma’s life, is just one example of someone feeling the pressures of democracy in action.

Jennifer Haberkorn reports in Politico, for example, about Grassley’s recent appearance at a town hall. She tells the story of a 62-year-old pig farmer, Chris Petersen, who is worried about losing health coverage. As a message for Grassley about the power of the electorate in a representational democracy, he brought him a pack of Extra Strength Tums. According to Haberkorn, Petersen elaborated to Grassley on the meaning of his offering:

“You’re going to need them in the next few years. People are disappointed. If it wasn’t for Obamacare, we wouldn’t be able to afford insurance. Over 20 million will lose coverage and with all due respect, sir, you’re the man who talked about the death panels. You’re going to create one great big death panel in this country for people can’t afford to get insurance.”

Petersen demonstrates that voters have long memories, and he also demonstrates the power of participatory democracy to move our those who are supposed to represent the real needs and interests of their constituencies and not just push their own ideological agendas or the ideological agendas of the moneyed interests who sponsor their campaigns.

Republicans all over the nation are facing this kind of pressure in town halls and are now admitting that those showing up are not the “professional protesters” many Republicans have charged in efforts to dismiss dissent but in fact genuinely concerned constituents fulfilling their roles as citizens in the democratic process.

Some, though, like Illinois’ Republican Representative Peter Roskam, are refusing to hold town halls, effectively rejecting democracy in both representational and participatory terms. Can one really represent the constituents one refuses to hear?

The Republican Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton has been clear about the realities of American democracy, warning Congress that it is moving “too quickly” and cautioning Republicans that they will be judged in future elections by the legislation they pass now.

People want healthcare, and they are clearly not just paying close attention but asserting their power as voters. Republicans this time will not be allowed to get away with false claims that their plan will lower costs and broaden coverage. They will actually have to produce legislation that does so. As of now, the Congressional Budget Office indicates millions will lose coverage and not be able to afford it.

When James Madison penned Federalist Paper No. 10, he underscored the importance of representatives who would act at some distance from the passions of the people and thus be capable of enacting a deliberative democracy. For Madison, the representatives should be able to “withstand the temporary delusion” to “give time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.”

What we see today is that it is people’s participation that is forcing their representatives into a deliberative stance to control their “temporary delusion” that repealing the ACA will be good policy for the majority of Americans.

Let us be cognizant of what we are witnessing: Participatory democracy is our last and best hope. The chants at town halls of “DO YOUR JOB!” are in fact making Republican lawmakers afraid that they will lose theirs and hopefully encourage accountability to their constituents’ genuine needs and interests.

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