They Run (for Office) and They Hide….

The unremitting chaos in Washington has triggered a number of Town Halls in which GOP members of Congress have faced rooms filled with angry constituents. As a result, a number of other Representatives have evidently decided against holding such events.

Not surprisingly, hiding from the people you represent hasn’t made those constituents very happy. Their reactions have varied.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a woman who lives in Indiana’s Fifth District, represented by Congresswoman Susan Brooks. She told me that she and several of her friends and neighbors had been frustrated by Brooks’ unwillingness to hold a Town Hall, so they decided that they would organize a meeting and invite her. If she wasn’t going to take the initiative, they would.

A meeting was organized via Facebook and word of mouth, and at 2:00 in the afternoon of May 13rth, approximately 120 5th District constituents gathered at the Sullivan Muncie Cultural Center in Zionsville.

Brooks declined to appear, nor did she send a representative, so the organizers set up an empty chair with her photo and proceeded to conduct a meeting without her.

According to her report, the voters who gathered at the Cultural Center were there primarily to voice their very serious concerns about the GOP Healthcare Plan, although  several other issues were raised as well.

Given the Congresswoman’s reluctance to attend either in person or through a surrogate, the organizers anticipated an effort to dismiss attendees as “agitators” or people from outside the district; in order to rebut any such claims, they prepared a “sign in” book in which those present provided their names, addresses and emails.  During the meeting, each voter was offered an opportunity to speak, to fill out a card with questions for Ms. Brooks, and to sign a large paper scroll expressing their views. The organizers plan to deliver these items to Brooks’ office.

The constituents who spoke at the nearly three-hour meeting shared stories of people with pre-existing conditions, children with ongoing medical needs, and people injured on the job who then saw those jobs eliminated. They  talked about the extent to which they and their families would be harmed by the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement by the current iteration of the GOP healthcare bill.  Some cried.

At the conclusion of the emotional meeting, those in attendance agreed to redouble efforts to meet face to face with Congresswoman Brooks. With or without the Congresswoman, however, they are determined to hold a series of Town Hall Meetings throughout the 5th District.

What is remarkable about this–at least to me–was the event’s genesis and spontaneity. I’ve complained bitterly over the years about Hoosiers’ civic apathy and lack of political engagement, our embarrassingly low voter turnout…Yet here in central Indiana, with no partisan sponsorship, no encouragement from activist organizations, no donations from any lobby or special interest group, ordinary voters got together and demanded to be heard.

It will be fascinating to watch this new democratic (small d) wave play out, not just in Indiana but in Congressional districts across the country. Will elected officials listen? If not, will they be voted out? How safe are those safe, gerrymandered districts?

What’s that old saying? They can run but they can’t hide….


Hissy Fits

Conflict is a given in democratic systems. Citizens are expected—nay, encouraged–to bring their different value systems, ideas and political preferences into the public square, where we have not only the right but the duty to make our arguments as forcefully and persuasively as we can. Only after we’ve aired the relevant pros and cons in our lively but civil marketplace of ideas do we select the winners in a fair and square, open process. We elect the most persuasive candidate, or we pass (or defeat) the proposed legislation. Everyone gets a say, we have a fair fight, and everyone abides by the result.

 Or so the theory goes.

 Unfortunately, this system only works if everyone plays by the rules, broadly conceived. Another way to put that is the system only works if the participants are grown-ups.

 I can remember when my sons were small. Telling a two-year-old who doesn’t want to share his toy that “time’s up, now it’s Johnny’s turn” would more often than not be met with a tantrum, and screams of “no! mine!” Some of the footage we’ve been seeing on the evening news has reminded me forcefully of those less-than-idyllic moments of motherhood. We see people showing up at Congressional “town halls” with guns, or signs accusing the administration of being “Nazis.” We’ve even seen people biting each other! (Talk about angry toddlers!)

 Now, people are refusing to let their children hear President Obama tell them to study hard and stay in school. (It’s communist indoctrination!)

 There’s no polite way to say this, folks. This is nuts.

 Now, this is the place in the discussion when someone can be counted on to sputter that they “have a right” to say their piece. And they do. I absolutely agree. But just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean that doing it is appropriate, or helpful, or smart. Name-calling—especially when it is abundantly clear that the person hurling the accusation has no clue what “socialist” or “Nazi” really means—is about as persuasive as a two-year-old’s shriek.

When people on the left called Bush a Nazi, they made it much more difficult for people with principled and very specific concerns to be heard. When people on the right throw hissy fits, they  drown out more thoughtful and reasonable critics, making it easy—if unfair—to dismiss all opposition as unhinged. When we see television clips of people who have gone off the deep end because there is a black family in the White House, it makes it tempting to paint all opposition as racist.

Many of us were dismayed when Bush won in 2004, but he was elected, he was the President and we had to suck it up and live with it. We made our arguments, we registered our protests and we waited for the next election. It’s time for these rabid Obama haters to grow up and do the same.

You win some, you lose some. It’s called democracy.