Then And Now: Congressmen Using Bogus Excuses To Avoid In-Person Town Halls

In August 2009, then-Democratic Rep. Brian Baird of Washington was asked by his local newspaper why he had declined to hold in-person town hall meetings. Baird averred:

“Brown Shirt tactics”? Wow. If true, Baird would’ve been fully justified in jettisoning the in-person town hall meeting, because he could well have been killed by a band of fascist thugs. Had that been an accurate representation of the political circumstances in August 2009, Baird would’ve been most assuredly in the right. Except… that was a ridiculous representation of the political circumstances in August 2009. The situation was that a segment of the American populace was incensed about the new president and wanted to stymie his legislative agenda. They expressed their discontent in part by showing up to Congressional town hall meetings and chastising their local representatives, often resulting in YouTube videos which went “viral” and were subsequently picked up by TV networks. All of this was well within the parameters of legitimate U.S. politicking: angry constituents are entitled to show up at their Congressman’s public meetings, and Congressmen have an affirmative obligation to field their queries, no matter how contentious.

Democrats pulled out all the stops to de-legitimize these town hall ruckuses. Nancy Pelosi declared, “I think they’re Astroturf,” and noted that people bearing swastikas had been spotted, as if it should’ve been any surprise that assorted cranks would show up to an open political event. Sen. Harry Reid declined to hold in-person town halls due to the supposedly looming threat of “organized disruption.” There were abrupt meeting cancelations after Representatives encountered more hostility than they had bargained for. Democrats painted themselves as victims, rather than willing participants in raucous public discourse.

Eight years later, it’s Republicans who apparently need their own “safe spaces,” free of any fearful confrontation from constituents. Because as we all know, democracy should always be non-confrontational and even adulatory; Congressmen shouldn’t feel threatened in their very own home district! Knuckle-dragger Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has nonsensically suggested that he’s liable to be shot dead by area liberals; Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) was scheduled to hold a town hall yesterday, but then turned around at the last second and made it a “Tele-town hall” instead.

“Telephonic” town halls are unsuitable replacements for real live, physical meetings for a variety of reasons. First, they allow Congressmen to completely control the flow and tenor of the meeting; their staff screen callers, and the back-and-forth between questioner and Congressman is obviously going to be stunted over the phone. “Tele-town halls” also don’t lend themselves to authentically lively exchanges, which tend to be where the real action is at in-person town halls. There’s no risk of being featured on a raucous YouTube video. So these things are essentially shams, and they should not be seen as fulfilling a Congressman’s duty to engage proactively with constituents.

Despite GOP complaints, recent town hall agitation has not primarily been engendered by “fakery,” and the typical protesters are not being “paid.” It doesn’t take a massive organizational effort to inform people of the whereabouts of town hall meetings. They need only to join a Facebook group or email list. Various longstanding advocacy groups might have a hand in laying some of the very basic infrastructure for such initiatives, but at base these town hall fracases are borne of genuine grassroots sentiment. Trump really is loathed to an unprecedented degree by wide swaths of the population, for a combination of good and not-so-good reasons. The same was true of Obama, who was the centerpiece of a right-wing media industry that derived profit squarely from its ability to demonize him in the most outlandish terms possible (stealth jihadist, illegitimate communist). Obama’s signature legislative proposal, then, provoked all sorts of ferocious backlash — folks were convinced that “Socialized Medicine” would lead to the downfall of the American state.

In a country of 320 million, there are plenty of people eager to get outraged over anything. It only takes a minuscule fraction to show up to town hall meetings, wreak a modicum of havoc, and then create an overarching political narrative. Why some are so dead-set on dismissing such outrage as “manufactured” remains a mystery. The White House press secretaries who presided over both periods of popular discontent (2009 and today) used remarkably similar talking points to deny the genuineness of the mobilization:

I’ve now attended several “anti-Trump” town halls and related events, and have yet to encounter anyone who was “paid” to show up, notwithstanding rampant rumors on the internet. Again, most people who populate these things simply signed up for an email list or joined a Facebook group. That doesn’t take massive resources. As much as it might be a comfortable conspiracy for aggrieved conservatives and/or Trump supporters to fall back on, George Soros is not orchestrating these events. Are there organizers associated with the new anti-Trump advocacy group “Indivisible” which might be “Soros-connected”? Perhaps, but that means little in practice. Soros money has also flowed to the Drug Policy Alliance, for instance, but it would be ridiculous to charge the DPA as being some kind of pawn for Soros. Sure: it’s interesting to document the myriad ways in which Soros funds different progressive groups, and there’s a legitimate criticism that his influence is too pronounced, but the idea that recent protests can be summarily dismissed due to some highly tangential connection to the man is preposterous.

Similarly, a cottage industry of liberal commentary held in 2009–2010 that the Tea Party and invigorated grassroots opposition to the Affordable Care Act was principally a function of Charles and David Koch’s nefarious financial largesse. Although the Kochs’ political advocacy groups did have a major role in organizing various anti-Obama initiatives, mostly what they did was funnel pre-existing grassroots sentiment into a broader apparatus. With regard to the 2009 town halls in particular, much of the agitation was self-organized, and required only rudimentary googling/Facebooking/emailing to orchestrate.

In any event, screeching about outside agitators, “paid protesters,” or “manufactured” outrage isn’t a valid excuse for failing to hold town hall meetings. If anything is “manufactured,” it’s the trumped-up physical threat that Congressmen claim they face at these events. The actual threat is political — that’s the only reason for their cowardice. This applied to Democrats who abdicated their responsibilities in 2009, and it applies to Republicans now.

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