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Should Town Hall Meetings Matter?

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.   

The continuing arguments over congressional "town hall meetings" and protests against health reform have largely focused on the relative authenticity of the protests. Are the people chanting against Obama and health reform at these events motivated by spontaneous civic-minded feelings, or were they rounded up and deployed by "astroturfing" p.r. outfits paid by health industry lobbyists? This post by James Vega goes into the questions of authenticity in some detail.

But I have a different question: authentic or phony, should these protests matter to Congress? We are talking, after all, about relatively small groups of people vociferously expressing a point of view (yes, some ask "questions" of their representatives, but generally of the loaded and rhetorical sort). Should these expressions be given disproportionate weight, perhaps more than, say, the party or ideology of Members of Congress, their understanding of their districts' needs, or surveys of public opinion?

The question pretty much answers itself if you don't start with vague notions, as many conservative commentators have been offering lately, that the protesters somehow represent the heart and soul of America, or Concerned Citizenry, or the Middle Class, or some such other abstraction. It's particularly amusing to hear those who doubt the significance of the protests being denounced as "elitists." What could be more "elitist" than the belief that democratic procedures should be trumped by the appearance of a few hundred highly opinionated people at a public event?

I dunno--maybe my jaundiced attitude on this subject was developed when I worked for a United States Senator back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yes, my boss held public forums pretty regularly, and yes, we carefully toted up calls and cards and letters sent from constituents on various issues of the day. But we were under zero illusion that these expressions of public opinion were necessarily representative of public opinion itself. At public events, the bane of every Member of Congress' existence in those days were the so-called "Notch Babies," a cohort of people born between 1917 and 1921 who were convinced they had been denied Social Security benefits that people born just before or after received. "Notch Babies" showed up at every available forum demanding financial reparations. Members and staff patiently listened to, and tried to reason with, these disgruntled citizens, with limited success. But you know what? Legislation to "fix" the "notch" was never enacted.

Elected representatives do have a responsibility to give constituents opportunities to ask them questions and express their own views, as a simple matter of accountability. But those voices should not be confused with the "voice of the people," measured a bit more scientifically by elections, in which, as you may recall, the candidates clearly preferred by most if not all of the health reform protesters lost. This probably made them feel "disempowered" and perhaps even angry and inclined to answer that email and go out to shake fists at the Democrat Socialist representing them so badly in Congress. That's all well and good, and any Member of Congress who can't take heckling now and then is probably in the wrong line of work. But the idea that the chants and signs and head-counts at these highly selective events ought to sway votes on real issues is just wrong.

[Cross-posted from The Democratic Strategist.]

--Ed Kilgore