assessing the congressional town meeting protests, 2009 and 2017

In 2009, when Democratic House members went home to discuss the Affordable Care Act with their constituents, they faced disruptive questions and protests, often from people loosely affiliated with the Tea Party. The protesters cited such supposed evils as Death Panels. This year, when Republican House members go home to discuss repealing the same legislation, they face disruptive questions and protests from supporters of the ACA. In at least one case, a Member of Congress decried the Death Panels that are supposedly now in existence and was hooted down as a liar by his constituents. In both 2009 and 2017, many Members of Congress have decided not to hold so-called Town Meetings at all because of the prospect of protests that would be covered on mass media.









I was prone to lament the protests in 2009 but welcome them in 2017. That sounds like hypocrisy, but the comparison is more complicated. First, the same behavior can be appropriate or inappropriate depending on its purpose and content. Making such distinctions requires judgment, but judgment is essential in politics and is not merely a form of bias. In other words, the right judgment may be that the protests of 2017 are helpful even though those of 2009 were harmful. One reason may be that the protesters of 2017 are speaking truth, and those of 2009 were repeating lies. I acknowledge that’s a simplification, but it may be roughly correct.

Second, if we treat a political act (such as organizing or disrupting a public meeting) as a general category, without reference to its purpose or outcome, we still must weigh several values. Disrupting a meeting is bad for civility but may enhance free speech and agency. Only a purist about civil dialogue would automatically oppose any form of disruption.

I took a somewhat unusual position in ’09. I argued that deliberation–i.e., genuinely listening and being open to changing one’s mind–plays an important role in a democracy. When protesters shut down events sponsored by Democrats, or when Democrats stopped holding open meetings in fear of protests, deliberation suffered. This was a shame because we are all badly limited, morally and cognitively, and we need opportunities to hear from the other side.

However, I said then, a major cause of the disruption was the design of these events. In a truly deliberative event, such as a classic New England Town Meeting, the participants make a collective decision that is not pre-determined by the organizer. To make such a discussion go well requires rules that give people and arguments equal time and organize the debate. An event that is billed as a “Town Meeting” is a fake deliberation if the politician-organizer has already made up his or her mind and just wants to persuade the audience. Giving members of the public a chance to react for a minute at the mic. is a recipe for angry responses. Such meetings are so predictably bad that they provide frequent moments of comedy on Parks & Rec:

The solution would be to reserve events that are billed as deliberative for genuine deliberations. Citizens would be invited to discuss and design solutions, and the organizers would be open to any outcomes. An example is our successful recent experiment with a Citizens Initiative Review in Massachusetts.

When, on the other hand, a representative already holds a position on an issue and wants to persuade the public, she or he is entitled to screen the audience, to talk only through the media, or otherwise to control the format. At the same time, opponents are entitled to exercise their rights of assembly and petition to argue the opposite position. If the politician chooses to speak in an open room, then she should expect disruptions. If the politician screens the audience, she should expect people outside with signs.

Several additional issues arise for me:

  1. What should matter to protesters is winning. You win if you get more than 50% of the public to support you actively, e.g., by voting in 2018. A protest that may inspire your side and even encourage more participation may also alienate the undecided. Everyone involved in a social movement should read Bayard Rustin’s 1965 article “From Protest to Politics” to remember the difference between moral purity and political effectiveness. Perhaps “What would the median voter think about this?” is not the only important question, but it is always one question to consider explicitly.
  2. The number of people who are present at these events is trivially small in a nation of almost 320 million. The protests matter because they are covered by mass and social media. Controversy and outrage are profitable for media companies. That means that moments of disruption will receive disproportionate attention, and most moments of actual dialogue will be lost. An effective protest may have at least two mediated audiences: supporters whom it inspires, and opponents whom it outrages. They will see the same event in different media contexts. Smart political activists think their way through to the media coverage in all channels.
  3. Listening is a political virtue, even if it’s not the only virtue. Speaking out of turn at a meeting, or drowning out the main speaker, may be the right thing to do. It allows other people to hear you and it honors your right to a voice. But it does have a cost: the audience can’t hear the person you have drowned out or preempted. It’s appropriate to reduce that cost by (for example) interrupting briefly and then yielding back the floor.
  4. Politicians who appear at open public meetings before hostile audiences to defend their settled positions are not strictly deliberating. They have made up their minds and they seek to use their influence to affect public opinion. However, by physically appearing before their critics, they demonstrate vulnerability. As Danielle Allen argues in Talking to Strangers, democracy requires vulnerability. It is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for valuable interactions between people who are strong and weak. Therefore, Republican Members of Congress who continue to face protesters in open meetings deserve some credit–which takes nothing away from the protesters who challenge them.
  5. A protest is a moment of potential, but only if the protesters find other ways of acting together politically. In turn, that requires members of the protest movement to form durable relationships and to develop and extend their skills, usually in the context of organizations to which they belong. In a very important recent interview, Marshall Ganz says, “Many Democrats confuse messaging with educating, marketing with organizing. They think it is all about branding when it is really about relational work. You engage people with each other, creating collective capacity. That’s how you sustain and grow and get leadership.”

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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