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.