The town hall meeting essentially ended before it started — a victim of an out-of-control audience.
People screamed and waved signs. They wouldn’t let the congressman on stage talk. He couldn’t get through more than a word or two of an answer without his voice being drowned. Within an hour, he had left the stage, needing a police escort to get safely to his car.
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No, this was not the meeting Rep. Jason Chaffetz hosted at Brighton High School earlier this month. It was a meeting hosted by Rep. Tim Bishop, a Long Island Democrat, and it took place in June of 2009, only a few months after he had won re-election by 16 percentage points.
He wasn’t alone. The rise of the tea party a few months before had energized many followers to confront Democratic lawmakers with noise and commotion, protesting Obamacare and bailouts.
At the time, Politico.com made this observation: “…welcome to the new town-hall-style meeting, the once-staid forum that is rapidly turning into a house of horrors for members of Congress.” That now seems prescient.
It may be a truism in American politics that once one side unleashes a successful new weapon of incivility, the other side will retaliate in-kind at the first opportunity. Whether it’s the ratification of a Supreme Court justice or the use of executive orders to circumvent real discussion and compromise, politics never seems to retreat to a more civilized time. Folks upset with the nation’s direction seldom look to score points by rising in favor of civil discussion and a meaningful search for common ground.
Politicians, just as divided as the public, set the tone by pressing agendas, marginalizing opponents and shunning compromise.
And so, only a few months after a Republican president was elected with his own controversial attitudes and agenda, Republican town hall meetings have become raucous affairs. Chaffetz’ meeting was just one. Rep. Tom McClintock, who serves a solidly Republican part of California, faced a similarly behaved crowd at a meeting earlier this month. Then, on Tuesday, protesters chanted near a meeting in Kentucky where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was speaking. A few got inside to ask questions.
In a meeting with the combined editorial boards of KSL and the Deseret News on Tuesday, Chaffetz acknowledged the “overwhelming majority of people (at the Brighton High town hall) were Utahns and they weren’t paid.” But he said he believes some of them were paid to agitate, and he said he believes CNN and MSNBC covered the meeting because they had been tipped off that such people would cause trouble.
That’s a controversial position refuted by many who are eager to acknowledge they live in Chaffetz’ district and had plenty of their own sincere anger to vent at the meeting without payment, thank you. It also detracts from another point he made.
Unlike at other events around the country, this one seemed dominated by a more local issue — the disposition of public lands and efforts to rescind the new Bears Ears Monument. Chaffetz said he would have liked more of a discussion about that.
“I left feeling like their intention was bullying and intimidation, yelling screaming and flailing, as opposed to let’s have an honest discussion about where we disagree,” he said.
That sounds so much like what Democrats said eight years ago. All you have to do is go back and read the stories.
Both Chaffetz and McConnell have made statements about their respect for the right to protest and to express opinions. Since Donald Trump took office, several protests and marches have taken place nationally. The nation has a time-honored tradition of this. Public demonstrations were instrumental in securing victories for important measures such as the right for women to vote or the passage of civil rights legislation.
The problem today is that nobody seems to be listening unless they already agree.
The good news is the town hall barrage of eight years ago died down eventually. Chaffetz said he intends to continue to hold the meetings. That’s also good news.
But until one side begins to make civil discourse and compromise in vogue again, none of it will matter much.