In the struggle over how best to address shortcomings in America's health care system -- shortcomings acknowledged by almost all participants in the debate, regardless of party affiliation -- politicians and private citizens alike found their nerves frayed and their tempers short. That is not surprising: a vigorous contest over competing principles was very much in keeping with the democratic tradition.
Democracy gives voice, and power, to the people. The mill worker and the street cleaner have a say in how their community is to be governed. In a great nation, however, this celebration of the masses, this empowerment of the non-elites, co-exists with great traditions and great institutions. To diminish those institutions is an insult not to one's opponents but to American democracy itself. That is why, when Congressman Joe Wilson hissed "you lie" in the midst of a presidential address, the affront was not to the president -- we don't treat political leaders as sacrosanct and immune from challenge -- but to the Congress, whose guest the president was and whose institutional standards were violated.
The House debate over health care reform was, for the most part, civil, intelligent, and thoughtful. Republicans, who had ample grounds for opposition to the legislation, might well have rested their case on their own very critical analysis of the proposal's likely effects. Hyperbole and excess are, unfortunately, to be expected, and poured forth from both sides of the aisle; nonetheless, there was sufficient thoughtful discussion in the chamber to meet a modern constitutional democracy's need for civil discourse and deliberation over important questions.
But in the midst of the legislative debate, a handful of juvenile members of Congress took to a second-floor balcony, looking out over a gathering of citizens objecting to the bill's pending passage, and proceeded, waving signs like a gang of street organizers, to incite the already angry protesters to new rounds of invective and cat-calls.
It is one thing for legislators, prior to the vote, to have joined citizen expressions of opposition to legislation they perceived to be harmful to the national interest. Many of them let their opposition be known, as they should have, in community meeting halls and at outdoor rallies. They wrote letters, signed op-eds, appeared on talk shows, and tried to rally public opinion.
But in the course of a debate already taking place on the House floor, in the Capitol, in the midst of a legislative session, with the sides declared and the die cast, for members of Congress to diminish themselves and the Congress by adopting the pose of street marchers and invective-hurlers, is, like Joe Wilson's "you lie," an insult to the dignity of America's democratic process. We are not a nation caught up in the folderol of top hats, silk gloves, and morning coats, but we are not a nation of ragtag rabble, either, and it seems that some House members have failed to grasp that being a member of the United States House of Representatives is a position of some obligation and worthy of being respected by those who serve in that institution.