Examining Pelosi’s USA Today Editorial: When Is Dissent “un-American”?

Loose_lips_sinks_ships_WW2_posterSpeaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wrote an article in this morning’s USA Today — her first mistake. Judging from the immediate reactions of Drudge, Twitter, Fox News, and a billion would-be pundits, you’d think Nancy Pelosi had called the entire Republican Party “un-American.” Of course she did no such thing.

In the meantime, as members of Congress spend time at home during August, they are talking with their constituents about reform. The dialogue between elected representatives and constituents is at the heart of our democracy and plays an integral role in assuring that the legislation we write reflects the genuine needs and concerns of the people we represent.

However, it is now evident that an ugly campaign is underway not merely to misrepresent the health insurance reform legislation, but to disrupt public meetings and prevent members of Congress and constituents from conducting a civil dialogue. These tactics have included hanging in effigy one Democratic member of Congress in Maryland and protesters holding a sign displaying a tombstone with the name of another congressman in Texas, where protesters also shouted “Just say no!” drowning out those who wanted to hold a substantive discussion. [. . .]

These disruptions are occurring because opponents are afraid not just of differing views — but of the facts themselves. Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American. Drowning out the facts is how we failed at this task for decades.

This is a fairly narrow statement, and it strikes me as fair, if sensationalist: attempts to clog the democratic process, rather than engage in it, cut to the very core of the idea of self-governance. Anyone is free to speak their mind in a civil society, but when an entire political movement collapses into a temper tantrum, bent on impeding the real work of government rather than changing minds, they cease being relevant to the process at all. If there’s a sin in Pelosi’s argument, it lies in its inconsistency, nothing more.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Even if they haven’t found a proper culprit, Republicans are right to worry about politicians defining Americanism, or patriotism, narrowly, and to purposefully exclude entire schools of thought. But where was this righteous rage from 2000 to 2008? The Republican Party, after all, has played games with “patriotism” for generations, in unbroken succession from Joe McCarthy, to George W. Bush & Karl Rove, to Sarah Palin, to Michelle Bachmann, all of whom shamelessly characterized their opponents as unpatriotic, or “fake Americans.” Each of these individuals crossed the line at which Nancy Pelosi balked: stigmatizing ordinary speech for its content, rather than the abusive manner of its expression, an argument with far more dire implications for the American “marketplace of ideas.”

Attacking the content rather than the manner of an idea’s expression is a bridge too for Nancy Pelosi, and most Democrats, but it’s a path regularly trod by Republicans. Indeed, one can barely go an hour watching cable news without hearing a Republican pundit accusing President Obama and congressional Democrats of “socialism,” which is, after all, a more surreptitious way of calling him and his policies “un-American.” One would hope that the Republican Party would learn, from its time in the wilderness, the danger of identity politics. Thus far, though, we hope in vain.



  1. Perhaps the Good Speaker has fallen under the banner of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

  2. I’m not generally one to care about what happened before my lifetime since I regard the past and tradition pretty much the way the King of Dunharrow regards his Way… but when I see criticism in the form of “OMFG! They hanged someone in effigy! Ohs noes! The sky is falling!” I’ve got to wonder… It was no threat to democracy when Not-Quite-Americans-Yet hanged Andrew Oliver in effigy in 1765, or when Americans burned Justice Jay in effigy in 1794, or when Americans burned President Tyler in effigy in 1841, or when Americans burned Senator Douglas in effigy in 1850. Ditto when Winfield Scott was burned in effigy in Florida in 1836, when Lyndon Johnson was burned in effigy in 1965, or when Barack Obama and Sarah Palin were both hanged in effigy in 2008.

    Burning/hanging effigies is not now, has not ever been, and will not ever be a bad thing. It is a quintessentially American form of protest and petition for redress of grievances, and any politician who gets upset about it happening needs to resign or grow a pair.

    1. For that matter, burning crosses upside down is a distinctly American form of protest. It’s still not a great thing to do.

      1. And burning crosses upside down is hardly comparable. It’s only ever been used by one group to convey one message, both of which are loathsome. Effigies have been used by many groups, only some of which were loathsome, to convey many messages, only some of which were loathsome.

  3. Nancy’s a hypocrite. It’s okay… after the first stage of denial learning can begin.

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