„Obama Lies, Grandma Dies“, „Obamahdinejad“  or „euthanasia bill“ are slogans you find on protest poster angry people hold up at town hall meetings, where the US health care reform is debated.  In general, everybody in a community is invited to attend Town Hall meetings to discuss political issues with elected officials. Such meetings are usually seen as a good way of giving voice to people in decision-making, therefore making politics more democratic by enhancing its input legitimacy. That is why social scientists like to take it as an example for studying public deliberation and discursive participation.  But in the current health care debate, there is not a lot of deliberation taking place. Instead, you see an explosion of emotions, fierce resistance and conflict. Mailing-lists and websites give advice on how to best disrupt those meetings. Here are some examples:

“The objective is to put the rep [representative] on the defensive with your question and follow-up. The rep should be made to feel that a majority, and if not, a significant portion of at least the audience, opposes the ‘Socialist agenda’ in Washington…If he blames Bush for something or offers other excuses – call him on it, yell back and have someone else follow-up with a shout-out.” (rightprinciples)

anti Health care reform protest

Although activism at such meetings isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, such an intense politicization of the issues has rarely been the case. But why after all should this concern scientists dealing with transnational governance?

In the absence of democratic legitimation via elections or debates in the public sphere, transnational governance theory is looking for normative approaches, which could form the basic building block for legitimacy of governance beyond boarders. Deliberative practices and discursive participation are seen as one way for closing the legitimacy gap. These thoughts are often reflected in multi-stakeholder concepts of rule making and implementation.  The problem is that inferences are made from the form and procedures of the governance arrangements to its potential democratic quality.

But as the Town Hall examples show, even under pretty good circumstances, people from the same political and social community, trying to solve an issue of general common concern (after all roughly 46 mill Americans or 18% of the population are lacking health care insurance), might not even be willing to listen to an argument, if certain actors are effective in politicizing the issue at stake and in mobilizing counter-reactions. This opens up questions on the consequences of politicization on governability. Politicization is just beginning to be discussed for transnational governance institutions like the EU or and even less so for other private regulatory arrangements, at these institutions get more and more confronted with societal demands, which can also disrupt the consensus oriented routines (see for example eurogov)

For the US debate, a journalist in the German newspaper “die Zeit” summarizes the problem nicely:

“President Obama has to realize that the attempt to reform the health care system is similar to dealing with an immune system that rejects a highly required donor organ.” (die Zeit)

This opens up questions on the reasons but also consequences for politicization: Is it based on the dissatisfaction with the content and procedures of the governance structure, like, for example, its lack of accountability mechanism, or has it rather a social base (the “losers” of any kind of regulation)? In the debates on health care, both seems to be the case: People are not only motivated by the legislation itself, but also by being discontent with the process, as is suggested by sentences like this:

“We the People are tired of complaining to a congressperson regarding their position on some issue and then receiving a form letter from that congressperson thanking us for our support. We the People who go to Town Halls are not simply there to sit quietly with our hands folded while politicians dodge responsibility by picking on favorites in the audience and giving us their standard stump speech.”  (rightprinciples)

In general, this example highlights the demand for empirical participatory research in transnational arenas to analyze the form and consequences of multi-stakeholder participation (confrontational vs. cooperative), as well as theoretical interpretations on the impact of politicization on governability in the transnational realm: Does it really contribute to closing the legitimacy gap or does it rather hinder the solution of problems?