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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Sound and Fury: The Health Care Town Halls

The American healthcare debate has taken a turn for the fanatical. An overzealous constituency, bolstered by a media more interested in the next big controversy than the next big policy breakthrough, has snatched the microphone from the nation’s political leaders and temporary drowned out any semblance of a coherent, meaningful debate.

I cherish the First Amendment. I believe that elected officials need town hall forums to effectively represent their constituents. And I am happy to see the public taking an active role in the discussion.

However, as much as it is someone’s right to speak, it is another’s to be heard. And as much as members of Congress need to listen to their constituents, their constituents need to do some listening of their own.

Reforming healthcare to achieve a cost-reducing and long-lasting system is far more complex than many rally-criers would suggest. Crafting a viable reform bill is an intricate process which brings many potentially competing interests – lawmakers, insurers, lawyers, doctors, pharmaceuticals, interest groups, employers – to the table. Boiling viewpoints down to polar opposites and then boiling over in public rage simply distracts from the true goal: affecting a cost-reducing and integrative reform.

The media, particularly partisan talking heads, shoulder every bit as much of the burden for the confusion, mistrust, and misplaced rage streaking the landscape. The nation needs news anchors to play a role in moderating a complicated discussion. Instead, they are juicing ratings with a turbo charged focus on controversy. News coverage has stoked partisan flames, distracting from the issue.

All things considered, I’m left to ask myself: what are the policy implications of all this? What does it mean for democracy when our politicians cannot have a discussion without being shouted down?

As far as the future health of American democracy and civil discourse, this recent rash of extreme activism has the possibility of discouraging politicians from engaging face-to-face with their constituents on hot-button issues. What rational person runs for office hoping for wrathful constituents to berate her?

At heart, I believe the media pundits and town-hall attendees mean well. Though lacking tact, they have reflect viewpoints that are (in theory) based on what they believe to truly be in America’s interest. But they are going about it all wrong. Debate is only possible when other side will pause and listen. An argument without a counter-argument is just a lot of yelling.