Democrats Avoid Angry Constituents By Avoiding Constituents

Last year Democratic lawmakers faced down voter anger over the health care reform bill at town hall meetings across the country. This year, they’re avoiding that problem by avoiding the town halls altogether:

BEL AIR, Md. — The reception that Representative Frank Kratovil Jr., a Democrat, received here one night last week as he faced a small group of constituents was far more pleasant than his encounters during a Congressional recess last summer.

Then, he was hanged in effigy by protesters. This time, a round of applause was followed by a glass of chilled wine, a plate of crackers and crudités as he mingled with an invitation-only audience at the Point Breeze Credit Union, a vastly different scene than last year’s wide-open televised free-for-alls.

The sentiment that fueled the rage during those Congressional forums is still alive in the electorate. But the opportunities for voters to openly express their displeasure, or angrily vent as video cameras roll, have been harder to come by in this election year.

If the time-honored tradition of the political meeting is not quite dead, it seems to be teetering closer to extinction. Of the 255 Democrats who make up the majority in the House, only a handful held town-hall-style forums as legislators spent last week at home in their districts.

It was no scheduling accident.

With images of overheated, finger-waving crowds still seared into their minds from the discontent of last August, many Democrats heeded the advice of party leaders and tried to avoid unscripted question-and-answer sessions. The recommendations were clear: hold events in controlled settings — a bank or credit union, for example — or tour local businesses or participate in community service projects.

And to reach thousands of constituents at a time, without the worry of being snared in an angry confrontation with voters, more lawmakers are also taking part in a fast-growing trend: the telephone town meeting, where chances are remote that a testy exchange will wind up on YouTube.

You can certainly understand why a politician would do this. Nobody wants to be subjected to repeated instances numerous instances of being shouted at by crowds of people, and there’s certainly justification for calling Congressman who avoid their constituents cowardly as Stephen Green and others have.

There is, however, another side to the story. I was never that much of a fan of the town hall protests, or at least not of the versions of it that resulted in representatives being shouted down by an angry mob. As Rick Moran wrote at the time, it really isn’t the best way to convince people that you’re right and they’re wrong:

Is it ever the right thing to do to shout down the political opposition at an open meeting?

I realize people are angry. I know that conservatives feel a sense of powerlessness as Republicans in congress fumble and stumble around and the Democrats seem to have it all going their way. I accept the fact that this health care bill is a fearful monstrosity and that extraordinary measures should be taken to defeat it.

But is screaming in impotent rage at your congressmen the way to go about doing it?

(…)

I know people are angry. But giving in to the emotionalism of the moment hurts the cause. I realize the left has used these tactics for generations – and that may be the silliest reason of all for conservatives to mimic them. Do you really want to imitate the absolute worst tactic of your opponent? Where’s the logic in that?

This is not a zero sum game. There is much more to be gained by demonstrating reasonably and respectfully than going off half cocked and disrupting what is, after all, part of the democratic process.

There’s nothing wrong with anger in politics, but blind, impotent rage like what we saw from many circles during the great Town Hall protests of 2009 doesn’t really accomplish anything other than convince your opponents that their opinions of you are correct.

Take your anger and put it to good use on Election Day.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Congress, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    “There’s nothing wrong with anger in politics, but blind, impotent rage like what we saw from many circles during the great Town Hall protests of 2009 doesn’t really accomplish anything other than convince your opponents that their opinions of you are correct.”

    I agree.  There is no reason a politician would want to face the dynamic of an angry minority.  That venue empowers such a minority.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Fortunately, since in our more enlightened times politicians pick their constituents rather than the other way around, it won’t make a great deal of difference.  85% or more of incumbents will be returned to office regardless of voter anger.
    I think the reason for the rage may well be the impotence.  And are the angry or otherwise disaffected really a minority?  Or are they a majority who have the choice between a Democrat who favors some very unpopular policies and a Republican who favors either the same or other very unpopular policies?
    Immigration is an example of this.  Polling certainly seems to suggest that a supermajority of voters shares a common view.  That view is rejected by elected officials.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    Nonsense.  That rage is but one part of the overall attempt to sway representatives.  My sincere, articulate, and reasonable email got less attention than the screamer at the town hall meeting.  We do what’s effective and sometimes they only understand anger.  I’ll guarantee those screamers also voted so adding the anger could be considered a good strategy.  For those who disagree when would be the time to start screaming?  Never?  Representative democracy requires those elected to listen and if they don’t the volume goes up.

  4. Wayne says:

    Good post Steve.
    Some of my additional thoughts. If one does angry protest all the time, it loses its effectiveness.  However last year protest were quite effective. There is an article out today about how Congress has greatly scaled back increase spending bills. Many Democrats are backing away from earlier positions and Republicans are taking tougher positions themselves.
     
    Good logical and calm conversations are ideal way to go. However when you get politicians ignoring questions and comments while just repeating their talking points, it become pointless. Sometime the only way to express how angry you are at them for ignoring you is to express anger.

  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    If you think the minority is angry, your knowledge of what the polls say appears to be misinformed.  Seems a MAJORITY if people were opposed to the stimulous package, Obamacare, cap and trade, the takeover of the banks and GM.  Pretty much, the MAJORITY of voters are leaning Republican.  So, I guess some of you will be ill prepared for the outcome of the midterm elections in November.  If you truly think 85% of incumbants will be returned?  What to make a bet?

  6. If you truly think 85% of incumbants will be returned?  What to make a bet?
     
    Zelsdorf,
     
    Yes, yes I will take that bet.  What are your terms? By “85%” do you mean 85% of both houses combined or a bet that involves either the house or the senate not retaining 85%
     
    Name your terms and the parameters and I’ll be happy to take that bet.  Do you have the cajones to put your money where your mouth is?  I’m doubting it…
    -NH

  7. john personna says:

    When anyone is denied a venue, they can use another.  When someone is excluded from a forum, it’s traditional to protest outside on the sidewalk, or across the street.
     
    This reminds me a little of the war protesters who liked to interrupt Bush, Rumsfeld, and others.  I think those shouters came across as a little nuttier than … well, the more people you can get together for your march or protest the more mainstream and less crazy you seem.
     
    That’s probably why the “war of the size estimates” echoed after Tea Party rallies.
     
    To the extent that Tea  Parties are taken seriously, it’s because of those thousands, not a hot, angry, and possibly crazy few.
     
    (couldn’t get this new edit box to work from my iPhone, would not “select” as an input field)

  8. MarkedMan says:

    Ever participate in an unmoderated forum/comments section/usenet group that was a useful place to exchange ideas and have vigorous discussions?  And then have it taken over by crazy flamers who end up posting more and more of the messages, full of hate and vitriol and sarcasm?  And then the regular crowd gradually leaves because who wants to sift through that crap anyway?
    Of course Politicians stopped having town hall meetings when they became dominated by people who had no interest in hearing what anyone else had to say. They no longer served a useful function.  Same thing happened in the 60’s and 70’s when it was the anti-war crowd.