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GOP, Right-Wing Pundits’ Misinformation Fuels Hysteria at Democrats’ Public Forums on Healthcare Reform

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Opponents of President Obama’s healthcare plan continue to disrupt town hall meetings held by Democratic lawmakers. We speak with Stanley Zuber, a registered nurse who attended a town hall in Pennsylvania and was shouted down while trying to ask Senator Arlen Specter a question. We’re also joined by Chip Berlet about the right-wing populism that has fueled the town hall disruptions. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now on Democracy Now!

to the increasingly contentious debate over healthcare reform. Right-wing opponents of President Obama’s healthcare plan are continuing their efforts to disrupt town hall meetings held by Democratic lawmakers during the August recess.

At a meeting yesterday in Hagerstown, Maryland, protesters repeatedly shouted down Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin. On Wednesday, at a town hall meeting held by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a white man was arrested after ripping a sign from a black woman that showed a picture of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus. In Georgia, the office of Democratic Congress member David Scott was vandalized with a swastika spray-painted on a sign bearing his name. The incident occurred just days after Scott took part in a public healthcare forum.

One of the most heated town hall meetings this week was in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where the Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter met with voters.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: There will not be rationing, and I have given you — I have given you as much — as much detail as I can on the savings. What number are we up to?

    TOWN HALL ATTENDEE: Right here.

    TOWN HALL ATTENDEE: Twenty-two.

    QUESTIONER 22: Senator Specter.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Yes, ma’am, number twenty-two.

    QUESTIONER 22: Section 1233 of the proposed healthcare plan — I thought, what could I possibly ask you to make you read this plan? What it says is, as a seventy-four-year-old man, if you develop cancer, we’re pretty much going to write you off, because you’re no longer a working citizen who will be paying taxes. What are you going to do about it? You’re here because of the plan we have now.

    SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: Well, you’re just not right. Nobody seventy-four is going to be written off because they have cancer. That’s a vicious, malicious, untrue rumor. Who’s got — who’s got — who’s got the next number?

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier in the town hall meeting, a member of the crowd disrupted Senator Specter. He then stopped the meeting and allowed the man to speak.

    PROTESTER: I called your office, and I was told I could have the mike to speak. And then I was lied to, because I came prepared to speak, and instead, you wouldn’t let anybody speak. You handed out what? Thirty cards? Well, I got news for you, that you and your cronies in the government do this kind of stuff all the time. Well, I don’t care — I don’t care how damn crooked you are. I’m not a lobbyist with all kind of money to stuff in your pocket so that you can cheat the citizens of this country. So I’ll leave, and you could do whatever the hell you please to do. One day God’s going to stand before you, and He’s going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill. And then you will get your just desserts. I’m leaving.

AMY GOODMAN: The Republican-turned-Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter also held a town hall meeting at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, where disruptions by the crowd continued.

Our next guest is a registered nurse who attended the meeting. He was heckled and shouted down while trying to express support for healthcare reform. Stanley Zuber joins us now in our firehouse studio. He works as a nurse at the Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Set the scene for what happened at the Bucknell town hall meeting.

STANLEY ZUBER: Actually, the way that the whole — the way it works, the gentleman that we just saw in the clip was correct. They handed out thirty cards. We were unaware of that. Myself and some associates got there very early, and there was — like we were within the first ten or so, and the doors weren’t going to open for five hours. And we just sat talking, as people started to filter in. And this is something that really surprised us. There was a group of young men that came in, and after they arrived, there was like this mad rush to the doors. And all of these folks lined up first. And obviously, they were aware that cards were going to be passed out to the first thirty people. We weren’t. So we ended up — I was lucky to get a card. I got question number twenty-one, which was in the back.

So, from my perspective, what you see at these town hall meetings are people with this agenda against reform understanding that they need to get in line first, possibly to get a card — certainly that was the case up at Bucknell — so they could, you know, ask their questions that were basically against reform. And those of us that may have had some other ideas about how we can make this work, we were very fortunate just to be able to ask a question.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what did you ask? And how did you get shouted down?

STANLEY ZUBER: I had some questions prepared that I wanted to ask the senator, but after listening to the first twenty questions that were asked, I just couldn’t let go some of the topics that were brought up and the hostility of the crowd, screaming about what we can’t do right, etc.

So what I wanted to — what I did was I shared a story, stories that we hear every day, you know, in healthcare from our patients, about a patient that I happened to take care of a while back who was a forty-seven-year-old contractor who ended up — his wife — they had insurance because of his wife’s insurance. She lost her job. He ended up having a heart attack without insurance, showed up to our place, had a cardiac cath, found out that he needed quadruple bypass, and I happened to be with him pre-surgery for a couple days.

The guy didn’t sleep for a couple days. He was distraught, he was sick, thinking that he was going to lose his house, you know, with all the bills for the cost, lose his business, and his kids might have to bear the burden of all of this cost. He actually said to me he might be better off dead, and they would get the insurance instead of having these bills.

And as I was sharing this with the senator and the crowd to put like the human face on it, because our concern is for the millions of underinsured and uninsured people, they just were yelling at me, you know, “Shut up!” all of this. One individual, one man, he led the charge for everybody who asked a question that wasn’t against healthcare, he would not shut up, and the whole crowd.

So I turned to the crowd, and I told them just to please be quiet, don’t be disrespectful, and let me finish. And I was able to tell them a few things about what I think we do right, you know, and what government did right, you know, by — and like, basically, with vaccinations stopping polio, our kids don’t die from chickenpox, [inaudible] stop tainted heparin, etc. And most of the people were able to agree.

But the bottom line was, I asked Mr. Specter to support the bill, especially to support some of the provisions that he talked about, physicians going into rural areas, you know, to provide preventive care. You know, there’s a lot of things that we can do and in just having the discussion, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is your community that was shouting you down?

STANLEY ZUBER: Absolutely. And you’re absolutely right. When I opened up, I talked to them about — I work at Geisinger Health, and I’m very proud to work there, because they’re cited by President Obama as being a model for the healthcare delivery system. And these are — Bucknell University is only about fifteen miles away from our main campus.

And I tried to tell these people that I watched the president and CEO, who just retired or resigned from our company, who’s still working as a consultant. His name is Dr. Richard Gilfillan. He was partaking in the healthcare roundtable that just happened this past Monday down at the White House. And he’s the president of our healthcare system, because we have a healthcare plan, and not only — and we also have a medical center that takes — and I said, this guy understands that we need to do something to reform healthcare. And he’s partaking in this. It’s something that we should be proud of locally, and we just have to — if people would listen and try to understand the issues, instead of what some of the right-wing commentators have them focused on, we might be able to move forward in this debate, you know, to provide healthcare for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s interesting is I bet a lot of people who are shouting don’t have healthcare.

STANLEY ZUBER: That — I can’t say that for sure with the people that I met, but the conversations prior to getting in here were fascinating to me with the disconnect, like there’s something with the synapses, I think, that are wrong, because many of these people are saying, “Who cares about people who don’t have healthcare?”

I had conversations with people in our community about laid-off workers right up here in Columbia, Montour County. I said, “They did nothing wrong. They work for a company for twenty-one years. They’ve just been laid off. They have no health insurance. They’re scared to death about losing their home. A burst appendix could help them lose their home.” And some of these people say, “Who cares?” And I said to the one gentleman, who was seventy-two years old, I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I’m here because I don’t want them to take my Medicare.” I said, “Sir, if I had the same thought process as you, I would say, the minute you turn sixty-five, we would say, ‘You’re on your own. Who cares?’”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was interesting to see the man shouting at Senator Specter about, you know, not caring about a seventy-four-year-old man. Senator Specter is eighty years old.

STANLEY ZUBER: Correct. And I have a lot of respect for him for actually standing there and putting up with this. I had a — he’s a Republican. I’ve supported him before, I’ll support him now. I think he’s a free thinker. I think he’s going to do the right thing on this issue. He comes to the town hall meetings to try to discuss — what most of the people didn’t understand, that — from my perspective, was that what we were talking about was a bill that wasn’t even a Senate bill. It’s not in a final version. The reason we’re having the discussions is to be able to come to some agreement that we can vote on to change our healthcare system, which is unsustainable right now. And —-

AMY GOODMAN: What do you believe is the best option?

STANLEY ZUBER: What do I believe is the best option? Right now, politically, understanding politics, a public option -—

AMY GOODMAN: Not politically.

STANLEY ZUBER: I believe that single payer would be absolutely the best way to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Which means…?

STANLEY ZUBER: Which means everybody is covered right away. We’re born, and it’s a Medicare for All kind of system.

But in this — in the current climate, a public option, I believe, would be something that would be acceptable, because what it would do is hopefully bring down cost. One thing I want to talk about Geisinger Medical Center, one of the reasons that we’re cited, I believe, is because we run our business efficiently. For instance, the local people — our CEO, Dr. Glenn Steele, he makes about one-and-a-half million dollars a year. That’s what he gets, which seems to be a fair price. In our local newspapers, people continually editorialize about the excessive salary that he makes. What they don’t understand is that he makes maybe one-tenth or one-fifteenth of what the average insurance company executive makes. And the point is, how much is enough? You know, so I think in order to control costs, if we have a public option, a not-for-profit option, that’s going to make people rethink what we’re going to do in the private sector.

AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Zuber, we’re also joined by Chip Berlet, who’s a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, author of the recent report “Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating.”

Chip Berlet, welcome to this discussion, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream. I want to play a couple of the — of clips of the protests around the country, but what is your overall assessment of what’s happening?

CHIP BERLET: Well, this is a backlash movement that’s composed of right-wing populist rhetoric that is scaring a lot of people. Yes, it’s astroturf in terms of it being manipulated from the top, but these are really seriously angry people who believe what they’re being told, and they’re coming into this with a kind of frame in which they think that liberal elites and subversive community organizers have taken over the country, and they’re going to impose socialism, and they’re going to — just like we allow abortion to kill young people, we’re going to kill old people. These are old stories that have circulated through the right wing for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play some clips. Several prominent Republicans have started publicly embracing the rumor that President Obama’s healthcare reform will empower the government to euthanize the elderly and disabled. The claims are largely fueled by former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin’s statement that the bill would create, quote, “death panels.”

Well, on Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele addressed the issue during an appearance on Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto.

    NEIL CAVUTO: Former Alaska Governor Palin, who calls these panels that are essentially going to be dispensing care or deciding it “death panels,” that sort of thing. Is that proper? Is that right?

    MICHAEL STEELE: Well, I think it’s — I think it’s proper, because it’s within the context of what people are seeing in some of the legislation that’s floating around out there, when you’re talking about panels that are going to be imposed that will be making life and death decisions, that will be making decisions about whether or not you get healthcare or don’t receive healthcare.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Michael Steele. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, right, he’s the number one Republican on the Senate Finance Committee that’s determining the healthcare plan, he also raised the issue of death panels Wednesday at a town hall meeting in his own state of Iowa.

    SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY: I don’t have any problem with things like living wills, but they ought to be done within the family. We should not have — we should not have a — we should not have a government program that determines you’re going to pull the plug on Grandma.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama addressed this issue at his town hall meeting in New Hampshire, where there was a man standing outside with a loaded gun strapped to his thigh.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The rumor that’s been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma, because we’ve decided that we don’t — it’s too expensive to let her live anymore. And there are various — there are some variations on this, this theme.

    It turns out that I guess this arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills, the availability of hospice, etc. So the intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care when they’re ready, on their own terms. It wasn’t forcing anybody to do anything. This is, I guess, where the rumor came from.

    The irony is that, actually, one of the chief sponsors of this bill originally was a Republican, then House member, now senator, named Johnny Isakson from Georgia, who very sensibly thought this is something that would expand people’s options. And somehow it’s gotten spun into this idea of death panels.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He heads now to Montana, and then he’ll be in Colorado on Saturday.

Chip Berlet, go into this further, this idea of, quote, “death panels” that, well, Governor Sarah Palin brought up, saying that her son, who has Down syndrome, might not survive President Obama’s death panels.

CHIP BERLET: Well, back in the late 1970s, Francis Schaeffer, who was a Christian right-wing ideologue and theologian, teamed up with a pediatric neonatal surgeon named C. Everett Koop, and they put together a series of films that were shown all over America. And they basically made the argument that — two sets of arguments. One is that abortion, the legalization of abortion, showed that America had become a culture of death, led by liberal elites and secularists, and that, therefore, it was only a matter of time, as long as you allow abortion, that there would be euthanasia and there would be essentially the euthanizing of the disabled and handicapped. And there were — these were six films, I think, five or six films, sixteen-millimeter films that were shown all over the country.

And that’s really been the story ever since in the Christian right, and it’s seeped into secular right-wing areas, as well, that there is a totalitarian tyranny approaching, where the government will make all the decisions. They’re going to come get your guns. They’re going to kill Granny. They’re going to force you to have abortions.

And as absurd as these things sound, there’s a huge media enterprise out there, reaching millions and tens of millions of Americans, feeding them this stuff.

What’s really scary, as blogger Sara Robinson has pointed out, is that when you have this kind of mass, organized, right-wing, grassroots astroturfing, but grassroots backlash, mixed with media figures pushing it and politicians joining it, it’s really a scary moment in America. I mean, you really have to understand that right-wing populism, in its most extreme and vicious form, turns into neo-fascism. It’s a little early to call it that now, but let’s not be fooled that if we let this happen much longer, that we’ll have a stake in these debates. People who support this plan have to get out and be at these meetings. They’ve got to push back, because they’re up against tens of millions of people who actually believe these lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Stanley Zuber, talk about — talk about the issue of the, quote, “death panel” and how — what happens at the end of life in the hospital where you work.

STANLEY ZUBER: In my experience, it’s something that’s very important. You know, at Geisinger, they talk a lot about quality and value. And it’s valuable to be able to have advance directives in place. It’s valuable to be able to understand what we’re going to do as a family with our loved ones when they become incapacitated.

All too often — it’s something that we’re working on right now at Geisinger to be able to address advance directives as soon as somebody comes into the hospital. We want to talk to people. And in my understanding of these two lines in the bill, that’s what they’re supposed to help facilitate, that we can talk and prepare for when this comes. And all that was supposed to do was allow people to be — the doctor to be reimbursed for his time in talking with the family.

What happens in our setting all too often is, when somebody becomes incapacitated because of healthcare issues, we can have family members that all show up, may not have spoken for years, don’t agree, don’t get along, and there are major debates, issues. At times, security may have to be called, because it’s so emotional, because they can’t make decisions.

That drains resources. It doesn’t really give us direction as healthcare providers on what to do sometimes. Are they a full code? Are they a no code? Are they a limited code? Exactly what action should we take to, you know, continue to preserve life? Or are we going to let them go and die with dignity?

And that’s — all that — in the bill, from my understanding, that’s all that wanted to talk about, was to help us deal with that in advance, to be able to help family members, on this very, very emotional, touchy issue, decide in advance, along with their loved ones, before something like that would happen. And it would certainly be beneficial to us, even to reduce costs, because while you’re spending days trying to decide and debate, it, you know, runs into problems at times.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, isn’t there a very serious issue with the media, as well? People are scared right now. People see big banks being bailed out. People are losing their jobs. There’s no explanation of the healthcare plan on television. It’s all about the polls, up, down, or what would really be something that was a cost — that both dealt with cost and dealt with something where people would be taken care of. Chip Berlet, your response to that?

CHIP BERLET: Well, I think the Democrats have really failed at crafting a plan that makes sense to Americans. It’s very amorphous. They haven’t made it clear that this is the discussion phase. They don’t understand that the town meetings are public theater that have been commandeered by, you know, well-funded groups that —- you know, this is basic organizing 101 that the Democrats have completely failed to understand. And progressives need to get out there and push back, because obviously the Democrats haven’t figured out that real people are really angry, and they’re going to be fearful and express that fear in attacks on the speakers at these meetings. So -—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have the comment of the Republican Congress member from South Carolina, Robert Inglis, in his town hall meeting, when someone yelled, “Keep your government hands off of my Medicare!” And, of course, Medicare is brought to you by the government.

I want to ask about the influence of talk show host Rush Limbaugh and what his effect is on the healthcare debate. This is an excerpt from his show on Monday.

    RUSH LIMBAUGH: If we want to ask the question, which group of people are closer to the national socialism of Germany on this healthcare plan, is it Obama and the Democrats and the plan, or is it the people showing up to protest the plan at these town hall meetings? It’s no contest. The people who are the closest and bear the most striking resemblance to the socialist policies of Nazis is today’s Democrat Party with this healthcare plan. Not saying Hitler and Pelosi are the same thing, not saying that. But, I mean, Nazi is — it derived from the German word national socialism. The German word for national — that’s where “Nazi” comes from. Socialism is socialism, wherever it is.

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s calling the plan Nazi. Chip Berlet, give us some background. You have people like David Scott, the Democratic Congress member, after his town hall meeting on healthcare, there’s a swastika that is painted on his name at his office.

CHIP BERLET: [inaudible] only made that mistake once. There were socialists in at the beginning of both Italian and German fascism, but they were overwhelmingly betrayed. In the case of Germany, they were executed in the Night of the Long Knives. So this is magical kind of rewriting of history.

What you have is, in the ’30s and ’40s, you have conservative ideologues and demagogues like von Mieses and Hayek and Flynn writing that FDR was imposing collectivism on America, and that was the first step towards national socialism, and thus Nazism. And all of the images that we have today of German Nazism and the genocide of Jews and communists and homosexuals and others.

So what’s really going on here is a debate that goes back fifty, sixty years, which has been percolating through, you know, magazines like that put out by the John Birch Society and other right-wing organizations, that have made the claim continuously since the 1930s that this kind of government activity on behalf of, you know, community welfare is in fact a form of socialism. And they also believe that socialism leads inevitably to communism, which leads inevitably to tyranny, and they’re going to come and take your guns away. So it’s a package. This whole idea of liberal, secular, humanist and subversive community organizers and the “banksters” and the “pollutocrats,” on the right, this is woven together into this package called right-wing populism. And it’s very aggressive. It pushes all the hot buttons of fear and anxiety, and it has for many, many decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Stanley Zuber, about the fear in your community?

STANLEY ZUBER: People are afraid, because they’re bombarded with a whole lot of misinformation.

Just to comment on what he said about the guns, you know, the whole issue, I come from rural America, you know, the salt of the earth, Central Pennsylvania. We hunt, we fish, we trap. We do all those kind of things that regular people do. And people are afraid of that whole package that he just spoke about.

But on the healthcare issue, I spoke with someone — a lot of people came up to me after the Bucknell town hall meeting, thanking me, both right and left. And what they were afraid of — one family talked to me. Their eleven-year-old daughter saw the news, and she was afraid they were going to take her insulin. And the parents — he owned a business in Shamokin Dam, and the mother said, “Honey” — like she really didn’t know what to tell her daughter. That’s why they showed up at this meeting.

And I said, “You have to understand there’s a reason why we don’t want to have this discussion, in my view, nationally on our large media, like ABC, NBC, you know, CNN.” Like, if people would just right now go to C-SPAN, there was a White House healthcare roundtable where our president and CEO of our health plan, along with about four other healthcare providers or six other healthcare providers, had a great logical hour-and-a-half discussion about what we need to do to sustain healthcare, how we can do this. That would be at c-span.org. Just type in, on the search, “healthcare roundtable,” and you can watch this. And folks in Central Pennsylvania can watch our president and CEO of Geisinger Health Plan give his input in a rational manner. And you’ll get some information. And from that information, you’ll be able to formulate pertinent questions about what we want to do, without just shouting each other down. You know, screaming and yelling solves nothing. We have to remember that this is about people. It’s about people that are sick that need healthcare. You know.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Chip Berlet, I want to segue into a slightly different issue but that has been, in the last few months, particularly, getting some kind of traction in some communities, this whole “birther” movement that we really haven’t discussed at all. How does this fit in? And explain what it is, the questioning of where President Obama was born.

CHIP BERLET: Well, the birther movement is the name of a relatively large movement in America that is suspicious that Obama was actually born in Kenya, or at least not in Hawaii, and therefore is an illegitimate president and should be removed.

AMY GOODMAN: Or perhaps even in Hawaii, but it’s not recognized that Hawaii is part of the United States.

CHIP BERLET: Right. And I think — you know, let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about white fear and white anxiety. And what you have is tens of millions of Americans, for the first time, they’re taking orders from a black man, and it makes them unhappy. And, you know, I don’t want to sound glib, but folks need to get over it. But they’re not going to get over it until we start talking about the racial component in a lot of this backlash against Obama.

These are standard conspiracy theories that have flowed through the right for many decades. I mean, I wrote about it in “Toxic to Democracy,” because this has happened so many times before. And now, with a black president, there’s an extra level of anxiety added to these suspicions. And so, the birther movement is pursuing conspiracy theories about liberal elites, you know, corporate executives and community organizers, and the Democrats have to choose between community organizers who know how to talk to real people about these problems and spinmeisters who have no idea what to do except label people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, author of the recent report “Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, & Scapegoating.” And Stanley Zuber, nurse at Geisinger Medical Center in Pennsylvania, who attended Senator Specter’s town hall meeting at Bucknell and was shouted down at that meeting.

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