hearts and minds

January 9, 2010

Russ Feingold’s January 2010 Listening Session

Filed under: Health care crisis,Politics & elections — Hearts & Minds @ 6:03 pm

On Monday, January 4, from noon until mid-afternoon, Democratic Senator Feingold held a “Listening Session” in Ozaukee County, at the MATC-North Auditorium. It was packed, with virtually all seats filled. A “full house” is not at all uncommon at Senator Feingold’s “Listening Sessions”, and I have attended virtually all of them in Ozaukee County in the last ten or fifteen years. But there was something obviously different about this session from the previous sessions I have attended. Republican Assemblyman (Mequon) James Ott (the infamous denier of the existence of both global climate change and of a health care crisis) and Republican state Senator Glenn Grothman (the “nowhere man” who “represents” much of Ozaukee and Washington counties) were both present. I have never before seen them at a Feingold Listening Session.

That was just a tip-off. There was also a large contingent of Republican party member activists also present, and for the first time ever, there were repeated and persistent efforts to interrupt and heckle Senator Feingold during the entire session. There were also several law enforcement personnel nearby on the premises (but not in the auditorium, as far as I could tell) so this organized opposition demonstration was apparently not unexpected. Russ was calm and in-charge throughout, and demonstrated exceptional confidence, not to mention surpassing competence and knowledge, in dealing with the intentionally disruptive behavior. He actually continued the session longer than scheduled, and efficiently managed the session so that as many people as possible were able to make comments and ask questions in turn. He replied briefly to these comments and questions without letting shouted out-of-turn comments distract him, and occasionally found it necessary to remind attendees to mind their manners and let people taking their turn at the microphone finish what they were saying. It was a masterful performance, and a good lesson for anyone who cared to learn from it. I had signed up to make a comment or question, but I was among those who had not been called on when the overtime ran out. The organized opposition was primed to follow a nationwide script we have seen since this summer to disrupt the session, demonstrate “out-of-bounds” anger and rejection of the incumbent official and Party, and get TV coverage by forcing the meeting to break up in disarray. That did not come close to happening, partly because Feingold thought and spoke and acted so well in the face of the diffuse opposition. But it also probably failed because only relatively few in the opposition were willing to completely reject the admonitions they recall, beginning in their childhood, to be polite and to respect and show consideration for others, and to mind your manners. Most Republicans in the audience seemed willing to listen and learn, and speak when it was their turn, in spite of the partisan coaching we have all become so subject to, lately.

The focus of the Republican party contingent was clearly on discrediting both health care reform and President Obama, and on organizing opposition to Senator Feingold’s re-election bid this year. As far as it goes, that is certainly legitimate. But the theme of FEAR was heard repeatedly at this “Listening Session”. That destructive theme has been heard and seen time and time again over more than a year since before the election of President Obama last year. It has been orchestrated by the Party that lost the 2008 elections, because engendering and spreading a national mood of fear is calculated by their strategists to be the quickest way to reverse their recent election losses (as opposed to rethinking the discredited policies that resulted in their defeats). I have never heard so many well-to-do, influential, and supposedly self-confident people express so much irrational fear in my life. It’s almost like these people are saying, “If I have to be this sick, I want everyone else to be just as sick as I am.” This irrational fear and hatred is a clear sign of how the bitterly divisive, partisan two-party system is putting the United States into an uncontrolled tailspin. President Abraham Lincoln (the first Presidential candidate of the then upstart Republican Party) said about the United States in 1858: “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. More simply, “Work Together, America, or you’ll tear yourself apart”.

The Ozaukee County Republican Party of today has instead adopted Ronald (“Trickle-Down”) Reagan’s commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”. That kind of unquestioning, unreflecting, knee-jerk party loyalty does not and cannot possibly well serve America or our continuing experiment in representative constitutional democracy. We all have to honestly criticize ourselves as well as we criticize others, or else democracy becomes a crass exercise in clique dominance and bullying tactics, and good governance becomes impossible.


  1. I couldn’t make it to the session, though I wanted to be there. I am glad you could and thank you for the detailed account.
    Did Feingold address why he is unwilling to fight for the single payer plan?
    Did Grothman drool in his usual catatonic state?
    Was Ott wearing extra sweaters to demonstrate that it is cold in Wisconsin?

    Pray tell what gossip came up…! Did the Republicans distribute the creationist coloring books?

    Comment by Dan C — January 10, 2010 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Clyde. You are so right on. When we all begin to respectfully express our best ideas about what is truly in the best interest of ALL, then we can have honest debate on the issues and better government.

    Comment by Dale L — January 10, 2010 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

  3. I was unable to be at this session, and appreciate your comprehensive report. Americans are being “hornswoggled” (to use an old word) by partisan Republicans — I have seen other instances of it on TV and the Internet. As FDR famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” How true!

    Comment by Marliss R — January 11, 2010 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  4. Well done again Clyde, Thank you for going there and sharing your insights regarding the health care situation: “if its good enough for our troops its good enough for me” CW….

    Comment by greg d — January 11, 2010 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  5. I was also at a Feingold listening session this past fall. It was also packed and most there were in opposition to pending health-care bills that were up for debate or pending committee passage. I saw no evidence of any organization by any group. You said that is was an “organized opposition demonstration” present at your meeting. You noted a couple of Republican representatives at the meeting and you said that there was “repeated and persistent efforts to interrupt and heckle” during the session. Are you implying that they were organized by those Republican reps. or by the “large contingent of Republican party member activists” that where also present?
    Maybe you just saw a group of concerned citizens expressing themselves. At the listening session that I attended, I heard concerned citizens addressing a very controversial subject. Maybe it is just as simple as that.

    Comment by Robert S — January 12, 2010 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

    • There is no question whatsoever that opposition expressed publicly to policies supported by an elected official is legitimate dissent, especially when expressed in turn at the microphone in the format provided at such venues as Feingold’s “Listening Sessions”, and Sensenbrenner’s “Town Hall” meetings. Other forms of opposition such as picketing and leafleting outside, are also both effective and undoubtedly legitimate ways to express individual or organized political expression at such events. Repeated, shouted outbursts and other disruptions are not legitimate when there is some effective way provided for protesters to coherently express their opposition or support, and when people came to listen and contribute to the public discussion. In such a public forum, presented in a way that allows many people to express their views for the elected official and all others to hear, individuals or groups who attempt to disrupt that process are actually obstructing the rights of others to coherently and publicly present their opinions to the official and those present, and are impeding the democratic process. Such disruption is not accurately characterized as “concerned citizens expressing themselves”, except insofar as children throwing sand at each other in the playground can be characterized as “expressing themselves”.

      By far, (and as I said in my article) most of those persons present who expressed opposition to Feingold or to the proposed health care reform did so in a way that did not disrupt or obstruct the rights of others with whom they did not agree. But there were a few who persistently and repeatedly attempted to do so. Neither of the two elected opposition party state legislators who were present did anything during the session to physically disrupt the session. But they, and the contingent of opposition activists, were not there by chance coincidence.

      Comment by clydewinter — January 15, 2010 @ 9:04 am | Reply

  6. What a joke:

    “Ozaukee County Republican Party of today has instead adopted Ronald (“Trickle-Down”) Reagan’s commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican”. That kind of unquestioning, unreflecting, knee-jerk party loyalty does not and cannot possibly well serve America or our continuing experiment in representative constitutional democracy.”

    Would that be the same kind of unquestioning, unreflecting, knee-jerk PARTY LOYALTY as was shown by the Democrats when Harry Reid said we voters choose a president based on lighter skin color shade and standard English, and all Democrats fall all over themselves to say there was nothing wrong with stereotyping like this???

    Comment by Lyn — January 14, 2010 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

    • I have never been a member of either of the two major parties, and my statement about “unquestioning, unreflecting, knee jerk party loyalty” not serving America or democracy well, applies to any such loyalty to any political party. Party loyalty has its place, I’ll grant, just as familial loyalty or loyalty to friends has its place. But there is a point when such loyalty exceeds bounds, and is out of place. Denying and covering up crime in one party, while avidly seeking it (even where it does not exist) in another party is an example of such out-of-bounds party loyalty.

      Comment by clydewinter — January 15, 2010 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  7. I, too, have been truly dismayed at each party’s inability to work with the other–and I think this has been increasingly the modus operandi for the past 30 years or more (longer than I’ve been voting, certainly).

    But I’m also disappointed at the dismissal of the viewpoints of so many citizens at town hall meetings (or “listening sessions” as Feingold calls them). The press has characterized these views as “shrill” and “disproportionate,” and Democratic leadership has been similarly offhanded about what’s being communicated. Yet there’s a sea change underway in the electorate’s stance, particularly that of independent, moderate voters. It’s hard to know whether that change is an extension of the dissatisfaction expressed by these voices or a reaction to their suppression. But it’s happening.

    I voted for Russ Feingold. I’ll probably vote for him again. I don’t agree with everything he says or stands for, but I think he has integrity (something virtually impossible to find in any politician these days) and I like where he’s coming from. But I don’t agree with him on health care and I think Congress and the administration need to step back and rearchitect the whole thing rather than trying to force something through during a perceived window of opportunity.

    No, I don’t buy the whole “death panel” thing, I don’t think the word “rationing” has any more place in this debate than it has ever had under our current system of insurance, and I do think reform has to happen both from a humanitarian and from an economic standpoint. But I don’t think the approach under consideration will achieve the (ostensible) aims; in fact, if you look at the true economic impact, the cure would be worse than the disease.

    Two points regarding organized heckling, etc:

    1) I saw a lot of the same tendencies–shouters barely kept in check, “angry” contributors, acting-out in the crowd–at the recent Grafton dam meetings. A lot of this comes from people wanting to weigh in on an issue they believe in passionately, a lot of it from the increasing sense that our politicians are impotent, incompetent and/or not representing the citizenry (which I believe to be increasingly the case) and a lot of it is just a rising sense that one shouldn’t or needn’t be polite when expressing onesself. Unfortunately, America is, more and more, a less polite place. But I didn’t attribute any of this to organized heckling in the crowd even with the obvious presence of outside agents who were clearly pressing their own political agendas, most of which don’t really square with Grafton’s political landscape.

    2) I think many Americans–and most politicians nowadays–consistently underestimate how important the intertwined issues of health care, the national debt and individual taxation have become to several very frustrated segments of the electorate. These voices have always been there but the perception is that they’ve been drowned out by political action committees, organized lobbies, distracting and non-legislative priorities (like year-round electioneering and the various misbehaviors of our political leaders) and partisan jockeying. And as a person who needed to be heard above a crescendoing crowd, people are becoming more and more frantic to project their voices. I can easily see this as a collective individual phenomenon, not one driven by some organized, subversive effort.

    The important thing to keep in mind is that, regardless of how raggedly or unattractively expressed, these objections are the true and valid voice of a segment of a leader’s constituency. They deserve to be heard.

    Comment by J H — February 15, 2010 @ 3:01 am | Reply

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