De Tocqueville And Town Hall Democracy

Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez re-read Alexis De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America." It changed the way he views the angry protesters at the health care town hall meetings. He now calls their fury "as American as apple pie."

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Noisy and emotional protests against government-run health care have led many to consider the nature of American democracy. Certainly, we're watching some very free speech, but perhaps we're also listening to a decline of civil dialogue. Debates on democracy are hardly new.

French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th century text, "Democracy in America," explores many of the same tensions. Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez went back to re-read de Tocqueville's observations and he's concluded that whatever you may think of the protesters, quote, "their brand of hot-headed, self-righteous, obnoxious, stick-it-to-the-man-ism" is as American as apple pie."

We want to know what you think. What about our nation's past political history has informed this American moment? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Gregory Rodriguez joins us now from the studios of NPR West. He is a columnist with the Los Angeles Times. He's also the director of the California Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. GREGORY RODRIGUEZ (Columnist, Los Angeles Times; Director, California Fellows Program, New America Foundation): Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, de Tocqueville's book comes from the 1830's. What do you think he saw in the - in that time that we're seeing in the U.S. of today?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, de Tocqueville was able to look at the pros and cons of the ideologies of liberty and equality. And as much as equality in the sense that we're all equal can spur innovation and creativity and entitlement and a belief in all our rights, it also has underbelly. And no one really, since then, has written about that as well as de Tocqueville.

And what he found really was that, well, the sense of equality can also give us a certain entitlement and self-righteousness and allow us to speak about things we know nothing about, because in a sense, the flip side of feeling that we're just as good as everyone else is the resentment of the notion that someone knows or is ever better than you.

So there's this - always this tension between climbing up the ladder and those - and wanting those who may know more, the experts, the powerful - we like to bring them down to size. We don't like to think anyone's better than us or knows more than us.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Or more than us.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so, it's your view that - or his view that high principles -the principle that all men are created equal, somehow leads to a sort of low standard of behavior.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, it certainly leads to the sense that - one thing it did, I think, de Tocqueville honed in on early, was the sense that man, each man, is able to figure things out his self - himself. And so, we have straightened individualism and this belief, and it's a beautiful belief. It's the core and the origins of America can-do-ism. But it's also the core and the origins of American, sort of, self-righteousness and know-it-all-ism.

So, again, it's the flip side of the same coin. There's good at it and there's bad at it. And the bad at it - in it is that we go around thinking we all know the answers. And he was quite pointed when he talked about the ability of America to really shut - he put it, shuts himself up in his own breasts and affects from that point to judge the world.

We all feel we have the right to judge the world from the limited knowledge within our own head.

WERTHEIMER: And that that limited knowledge is probably really all we need because we're all equal.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Precisely, and we can all figure out ourselves. We don't need no darn experts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Now, you're right that the belief in equality, obviously, spurred innovation in this country. A whole lot of people who felt that there was absolutely no reason why they could not be captains of industry if they just simply - if they had a good idea and were able to work hard.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. I mean, again, this is the beauty of America.

WERTHEIMER: The sort of no classes to know what keep them down. That's the idea.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: And this notion that we're constantly reborn and you could become who you want to be. But there's also…

WERTHEIMER: Several times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Precisely. You got to marry as many men as you want. But there's something implicit in that ideology that leads us to tear down a tradition. The institutions are constantly questioned and the constant questioning. And the utter - there's a certain implicit disrespect for tradition in American individuals and in American democracy. There's a certain disrespect. We're constantly - in order - the way I see it is, a country that prides itself on a million new births has to have a lot of deaths, that in a sense that we're constantly tearing stuff down to build it again.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the sort of - the two-sided coin, as you say, and - that is, we're looking at us. We watch all of this political protesting and whatnot - is it a good thing? Is it good for us to have a big nasty national argument over…

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: No.

WERTHEIMER: …an issue like health care?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I - that's a great question and I don't think it's a good thing. However, I think, as I write in my piece, it's not pretty and it can be dangerous. I mean, I'm one of those people who's sort of appalled by the people bringing guns to some of these town halls. But again, my conclusion in this column was, it's the price of democracy to have to suffer fools. And I think there's a lot of foolishness.

I wish the debate were on the principles, but it's not that uncommon that political debates don't - that don't focus on the principles. I mean, to some extent this is particularly nasty. It's peculiarly violent in its rhetoric. But I'm not sure it's that different than what we see day in and day out in American politics.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, let's check with our listeners. We want to hear from you about how our nation's past political history has informed this particular political debate, this American moment. The number is 800-989-8255. You can email us, talk@npr.org, or you can go to the Web, npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm wondering - let's see. We're going to pick up here on Kristen, who is in Burr Ridge, Illinois.

Kristen, what's - do you think this is a - are we looking at an American phenomenon here?

KRISTEN (Caller): Well, I think that what the gentleman, Mr. Fernandez, was speaking about…

WERTHEIMER: Rodriguez. But you were close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRISTEN: I'm sorry?

WERTHEIMER: Rodriguez.

KRISTEN: Rodriguez, I'm sorry. When he was speaking, I could kind of resonate with him because right now, if you look back at historical presidents and what they did in history - for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he was in office for two terms, and his enlargement of government responsibility sunk the private sector and really didn't really - the people weren't living high on the hog. It really didn't work that great. And I mean, only after him, during the industrial revolution, was there a great fervor in the economy.

And I feel as though the ideas about enlarging government going on right now, I think it's really important for - in other countries, like in Japan, my brother told me, in the early 1900s, they tried like a stimulus, didn't work. And frankly, if you kind of check in on what has happened before…

WERTHEIMER: And there…

KRISTEN: …and you see the results…

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRISTEN: …I think it's very, very important to what you decide to apply to what's going on right now.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Gregory Rodriguez, we're looking at a health care plan, which of course we will not know how it turns out until it does turn out. I mean, we won't know if it works until we try it. But meanwhile, before we take that on, we can have a lot of fussing about it. What do you think? Do you think that this is just a - this is just a sort of regular passage of, you know, whenever innovation comes, it's handed down to us from Washington, we all get upset?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, no. I think it's more than that. I think it's hard to disentangle all the issues involved. We're not just talking about health care clearly. The previous - the caller here is not talking about health care per se. She's talking about the size of government. There are a lot of issues at play here, and some of them aren't being spoken about clearly.

There seems to be a lot of sublimated anger about a lot of things that's being funneled through this issue. So I think in a sense it would be very difficult to disentangle where all this anger and all this worry and all this fear is coming from. I do not believe it's all about health care. And I do think this is a pivotal moment. I do think this is a sense that the election - this is a second round of last November's election.

I think we're talking about a changing America. We're talking about a black president. We're talking about a shift in the way we do business and a shift in the balance between private and public sector. And I think there's a lot of fear in the nation, a lot of fear, particularly among older people, and I think it would be a mistake to think that all this anger is about the actual proposals, which very few people know about.

WERTHEIMER: So, it's…

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The specifics of, at least.

WERTHEIMER: It's sort of a generally directed anxiety, as one of our previous guests said during the course of this hour. People are upset and unhappy and this is a place…

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

WERTHEIMER: …where they can talk about that upset and unhappiness.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. I do believe it's very much part of a larger zeitgeist. And this is - again, I really do doubt…

WERTHEIMER: Love it that that word, zeitgeist, got into our conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: So I think - and so therefore it would be nice if it weren't so raucous, if it weren't so boisterous. It would be nice if we took a little break and the president were able to come back in September to actually bring it down, back to the issue at hand. But let's see if he could pull that off.

WERTHEIMER: Sort of dial it down a bit?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I would hope so.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's see. Let's go out to Fort Collins, Colorado and to Liam. Liam?

LIAM (Caller): Hi, yes. I'm thinking of the abolitionist the period when people were actually beaten in Congress with canes by pro-slavery advocates. I think we've become sort of soft in that a few signs in some spittle spewing anti-reform advocates…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIAM: …are able to intimidate - like our congresswoman in northern Colorado had totally dropped the ball. She's cowered - she's only meeting with 10 to 15, in one case 75 people in very controlled meetings because she doesn't have the kind of gusto that, say, Barney Frank or Claire McCaskill have to confront these people and make them explain their positions.

WERTHEIMER: And so she's - you think she's ducking?

LIAM: I'm sorry?

WERTHEIMER: You think she's just ducking it?

LIAM: Well, yes. I totally think she's - also I mean, she's not really given us any clear position, one way or the other, on any of the - even on any of the aspects of the health care reform. And I think the reason for that is, well, we have a very diverse district up here. It's urban on the front range and then it goes out to hinterlands and the rural plains. But even still, I think that in her case she is underestimating the intelligence of the middle of the road and even the conservative voters.

These are not what I would call regular conservative people, as has already been mentioned. These are people who are, you know, highly emotional and feeling a whole lot of things. They're not just - in fact, as your guest just pointed out, they're not even talking about the issues because they don't even know what the issues are. Most of us don't.

WERTHEIMER: Okay.

LIAM: We're just emotionally - on the right and the left, we're outraged about the health care situation. But I think that what we need to do is roll up our sleeves and have a few more Barney Franks and a few more Claire McCaskills and people who are not intimidated by a little bit of yelling. I'm bothered by the guns at rallies, particularly where the president is. I think that's very serious. But yelling, signs? Come on, you know - if you've seen any abortion-oriented fight, you've seen, you know, anger and…

WERTHEIMER: You see many of these same kinds of things happen. Well, thank you, Liam. We appreciate that. And here's somebody who pretty much agrees with you.

Eric in Richmond, Virginia, who says: Hot-headedness is in the history of our nation. I'll read the rest of it in just a second.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here is the rest of Eric's email. This entire form of government, he says, and system of law was decided by men yelling at each other until they reached a begrudging conclusion that appealed to no one. The civility of more recent discourse in our nation's history has led the country to a place where many aren't happy. When calm discourse fails, isn't the next logical step to try discourse without civility's restraints? Now, there's a thought.

Gregory Rodriguez, what do you think?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I think both of the previous comments are right on. And - but we are in this - this may be true historically, about the level of civility and the previous caller's notion that our legislators should be willing to fight a bit and to fight back. But there is this level of constant - this perennial righteous indignation on both sides of the aisle that may be new in American history.

It's partly the consequence of cable networks and the ability to keep people riled over time. That may have changed the equation a little bit. There's more leavers and there's more of an ability for people to manipulate public opinion in an instant these days. And I think there is a reason to worry about - over time - as much as I do believe that obnoxiousness is part of our political history, I'm not saying that we shouldn't worry about it, that there are - it does have its dangers. But so far we shouldn't overreact to it.

WERTHEIMER: Okay. Let's take another caller. This is Jeremy, who's in Upton, Massachusetts, where - not so far from where Congressman Barney Frank had a fair (unintelligible) fit yesterday at one of these meetings.

Jeremy?

JEREMY (Caller): Hi. I wanted to ask for the commentator's thoughts on the change in the state of the national dialogue since, for example, the mid and latter 19th century, where it would seem to me, based on newspapers and records and so on, that not only was the level of engagement of the citizenry much higher, but perhaps also the level of dialogue going on was perhaps more substantial.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I'm not sure the level of engagement was higher. We can look at African-Americans, weren't terribly welcome to engage in the late 19th century. So I think the level of engagement actually is higher now. I think the ability for the elites to control the argument in the 19th century, even most of the 20th century, was much greater.

There is more democracy now. There is more of an ability for the average Joe or Jane to engage in a system. And that's part of what's going on. We are getting people who can say whatever they want at any time. And I think the previous caller's point is well-taken, in that at what point does - do legislators no longer fear this new democratized media world. At what point do they fight back?

WERTHEIMER: Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He joined us from NPR West. You can find a link to his column on our Web site at npr.org.

Gregory Rodriguez, thanks very much.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thanks for having me.

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