Rescuing Democracy

COMMENTARY Political Process

Rescuing Democracy

Aug 17th, 2009 3 min read

Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The

Rory Cooper coordinates The Heritage Foundation’s external messaging and internal communications, manages...

In November 2000, a small group of vote counters in Florida's Miami-Dade County protested the canvassing board's decision to move into a private room and recount only a handful of votes without media or public monitoring. The Left promptly dubbed this action the "Brooks Brothers Riot." I was a part of that group, and I remain proud of those constitutionally guaranteed efforts to this day.

All this should be just a part of history now. But it's back in the news again, thanks to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who recently compared this month's town hall protesters to the "Brooks Brothers Brigade." Gibbs' glib remark opened the floodgates. Liberals everywhere have gleefully piled on, decrying the phenomenon of thousands of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights at town hall meetings as conservative thug tactics.

A former White House chief of staff went so far as to call the past and current protests "fascist." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls them "un-American," and left-wing Web sites and cable anchors have carried the chorus as well.

Gibbs and his well-schooled echo chamber seem to have no qualms about smearing the protesters and misrepresenting their expressions of concerns as manufactured "astro-turf" events. But it just won't wash.

As a high White House official has noted, facts are a stubborn thing. Here are the facts, starting with November 2000. At the time I worked for a campaign committee. I was paid nearly $20,000 a year while living in one of the most expensive cities in America. I couldn't yet afford Brooks Brothers; those were discount threads I was sporting. Then, as today, I was hungry to participate in governance and the electoral process - just like a young community organizer named Barack Obama. Yes, I was flown down to Florida to count votes, just as Democratic congressional and campaign staffers were. No, nobody paid me to protest.

In fact, nobody requested we do so. Protest was a natural civic inclination, prompted when we saw democracy being taken in a mischievous direction. And no, not once did anyone ever purport to be a local citizen, or disguise their identities. It would've been silly of me not to take off my sport coat if that were the case.

After several of us were identified in the Washington Post, I received countless death threats and was labeled a "brown shirt" on several left-wing Web sites. We were vilified for continuing our political careers back home.

Today, supposedly reputable supporters and staffers of President Obama are smearing us once again, in an attempt to shift the focus from their disastrous health-care proposals. Hypocritically, they throw around words like "fascist," even as they object to others labeling policies as "socialist." Maybe, if we had worn tie-dyed shirts and burned American flags in Florida, the Left would have accepted us as legitimate protesters. Maybe if we had bombed the U.S. Capitol and Pentagon as former fugitive protester William Ayers did, we would've been invited over for dinner.

Or better yet, maybe if we were members of a professional protest group like ACORN, we could've received "stimulus" funds. Nine years ago, I and many other concerned and yes, patriotic, citizens rescued the democratic process from taking an ugly turn. We didn't ask that the counting stop. We demanded that all the votes, not a cherry-picked few, be counted. We yelled until the media turned on their cameras, and once they were on, the board members could no longer hide.

The shine of the light, the scrutiny of the press, the open and honest debate made several people up to no good stop what they were doing. Today, thousands of Americans are going to town hall meetings across the nation and telling their elected representatives that they are worried.

And watching. They are demanding that one-sixth of the nation's economy not be "reformed" without a thoughtful debate. They're demanding that their representatives read the bill and yes, even understand it, before voting for it. They are begging that reform doesn't take a shape that pushes millions out of their private insurance and onto a government-run plan.

In this representative democracy, they are telling their representatives that the silent majority is no longer silent. Yelling, singing, making homemade signs might seem ridiculous to the elite few, but fighting for a prosperous and healthy future is not considered a ridiculous notion by families discussing current events at kitchen tables across the country.

I was proud to protest in November 2000. But I am much prouder of my fellow Americans who are actively participating in the democratic process this month. Presidents, and their policies, have been protested since George Washington's day. There's a reason our forefathers granted us this inherent right, or obligation. The White House would be wise to call off the attack dogs and participate in this process rather than mock it. Better, bipartisan health-care legislation that actually reforms our current system rather than replacing it with something worse and costlier is the only downside.

Rory Cooper is director of strategic communications at The Heritage Foundation.

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