Monday, June 7, 2010

The Demise of Town Halls?

Jeff Zeleny has an excellent article in the NYT today about a topic I had been wondering about: where's all the fuss from the Tea Party crowd at Town Hall meetings held by Democratic Members of Congress? Turns out that there's no fuss, because there aren't a lot of meetings: Dems are ducking them.
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.  
For more context, see a good TPM piece from April.

OK, a few comments.  First, I do think this is sad.  Town hall meetings, as Zeleny describes, are hardly the only way that Members meet with voters, but they are a way to invite all citizens to ask questions in public, in a fairly formal setting.  It's the kind of thing that most of us intuitively feel is good for democracy, even if it's more the texture than the substance of democracy -- democracy needs texture, too.

It's also probably a consequence of very large House districts.  With 750K constituents per Member of the House...well, one percent of that is 7500, and one percent of that is 750, and it probably takes about one tenth of that 0.01%, or about 75 very dedicated people, to disrupt one town hall meeting (sure, you could disrupt things with fewer, but it probably takes several dozen to convince reporters that The People Are Upset).  And that's just people within the district, and no one, really, wants to be in a position of policing their own Town Hall meetings to keep out the crazies from someone else's district across town.  

Third point: for those who think that Democrats in Congress are a bunch of 'fraidy cats, this is pretty good evidence.  C'mon!  You can't handle a few people asking crazy questions?  You're afraid of YouTube?  You're supposed to be major league politicians!  The truth is, a halfway-decent pol should have little trouble handling this sort of thing, and there are thousands of liberals in each of these districts (which, you know, were by definition once willing to elect a Democrat to Congress) who would love to see their Member stand up to the crazy.  I don't have a link, but Al Franken did just that at a county fair or something like that last summer, and liberals loved it.  Really; for a good pol, this should be an opportunity, not something to duck.

(Update: math fixed.  See comments below.)


  1. "The truth is, a halfway-decent pol should have little trouble handling this sort of thing,..."

    No, 75 people who want to shut things down are a bit hard to handle. Please don't confuse these people with people who have legitimate grievances. They're people who licked Bush's boots until the GOP was out of power, and are throwing temper tantrums until they either win again, or drift off into Confederate fantasy land.

  2. I don't mean "handle" in the sense of getting the crazies to behave themselves; I mean "handle" in the sense of making oneself look good. And for that, it helps, not hurts, to have the other side waving Hitler signs and generally not behaving themselves. People with legit grievances are a *lot* harder to handle for a pol, in my experience watching these things.

  3. Math: 1% of 750k is 7500
    1% of 7500 is 75
    One tenth of that is 7.5.

    You're off by an order of magnitude. Love the blog, though!

  4. Michael,

    You are, of course, correct. In my defense...uh...can't think of anything right now. I suppose I'll correct it, above. Thanks.


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