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David Danbom, Published April 04 2010

Danbom: This time threats failed

This time, the politics of physical intimidation just didn’t work.

It’s hard to know why because it has been effective in the past.

After the 2000 election, for example, Republican congressional staffers staged the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” which succeeded in intimidating the Dade County, Fla., Canvassing Board into ending its recount of presidential election ballots.

And it seemed effective last August, when tea partiers – sometimes armed – showed up at town hall meetings of Democratic congresspeople, screaming at them, refusing to allow them to answer questions, and shouting down those with alternative points of view. The congresspeople were visibly shaken, as were those who believe in courteous civic discourse.

So there was no reason to think it wouldn’t work during the health care votes. Bring hundreds of tea partiers to Washington, D.C., place them in front of the Capitol, put Republican congresspeople on the balcony to egg them on, and have them scream at Democrats preparing to vote on the health care bill. Surely enough Democrats – especially in the all-too-prominent weenie wing of the party – could be bullied into voting “no,” sinking the bill.

Should we be surprised that some folks got carried away in this festive atmosphere of anger and hatred? Emanuel Cleaver, a black congressman from Missouri, was spat upon by a demonstrator. Two other black congressmen, Andre Carson and John Lewis, were confronted by tea partiers chanting a racial epithet so vile a family newspaper such as The Forum would not even print it.

The outrage here isn’t that Lewis had never heard this term before. Indeed, he had heard it just before he was clubbed unconscious by an Alabama state trooper in Selma in 1965. The outrage is that a genuine American hero should be subjected to such treatment in the shadow of the building that most symbolizes liberty and equality for all Americans.

Then there were the homophobic slurs shouted at gay Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass.

In 1995, Dick Armey, then Republican House majority leader and now one of the self-appointed leaders of the tea party nation, referred to Frank in a news interview as “Barney Fag.” It is clear that some of the nuts didn’t fall far from that tree.

At any rate, the bullypalooza seemed to be operating at a high level of efficiency, and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t work.

Except that it didn’t. The Democrats marched into the House chamber and passed the health care bill.

Maybe they realized failure would be worse than success, or maybe they wanted to do something truly meaningful for the country, or maybe they were motivated by something else entirely. But, for whatever reason, most of them refused to be intimidated by screamers, racists and homophobes.

This courage is heartening, but don’t expect the politics of intimidation to disappear. It is too effective, and it is too appealing to those among us who have no tolerance for rational argument. But, as Winston Churchill said after the Battle of Britain, while this is not the beginning of the end, perhaps it is the end of the beginning. Let’s hope so.

Danbom is an author, university history professor and contributor

to The Forum’s commentary pages. E-mail danbom@cableone.net