After enduring three hours of verbal abuse, calls for his ouster and interruptions when he tried to explain, Draper mayor Troy Walker said “I get it now” as he pulled back his offer to house a homeless shelter within city limits.
But what, exactly, did he get?
That, while sports fans in Philadelphia may be infamous for once booing Santa Claus, people in Draper will boo a homeless person off the stage?
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What are any of us to “get” from a spate of public hearings nationwide that, if nothing else, call into question whether kindergarten teachers still teach human beings, in their formative years, to raise their hands and not speak out of turn?
One woman drew applause by derisively asking who the mayor was, as if civic ignorance were a virtue.
Unfortunately, the question probably has some relevance. Mayor Walker was elected in 2013 by a 157-vote margin. Only 21.07 percent of registered voters bothered to show up.
The better question may have been who were those 700 people who showed up at the hearing in the auditorium of Draper Park Middle School, and how representative were they of the city at-large? How many of them were among that 21.07 percent?
That seems to be the $64,000 question of the age, to borrow the name of a popular 1950s quiz show. But just as that show became embroiled in scandal when its sponsor tried to manipulate the results, attendees at town hall meetings may be giving a misimpression of true public opinion.
Not long after the Draper shelter hearing, Utah Rep. Chris Stewart held a town hall meeting that, like so many in recent months, resulted in interruptions, boos and angry finger pointing.
Whoever these people are, it would be a mistake to characterize them as paid rabble-rousers or some other form of humans different than the rest. We have met the enemy, as Pogo once said, and he is us.
Last year, Zogby, in conjunction with Allegheny College, released its latest survey on civility in America. In 2010, it found 89 percent saying it was wrong to comment on someone’s race or ethnicity as a part of political dialog. By 2016, that had dropped to 69 percent.
Other indicators were equally disturbing. The percentage of people who said politicians should try to befriend members of the opposite party fell from 85 percent to 56 percent.
Is it unacceptable to interrupt people in a public forum? In 2010, 77 percent thought so; last year only 51 percent did. A solid 65 percent said it was wrong to shout over someone with whom you disagree, but that was down from 86 percent in 2010.
How about questioning someone’s patriotism because they hold different beliefs? In 2010, 73 percent said this was wrong, compared to only 52 percent in 2016.
The trend is unmistakable. This is what we, as a nation, are becoming. What is less clear are the long-term consequences, or the cure.
Former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has many times hearkened back to the old pickup basketball games former House Speaker Tip O’Neill encouraged among representatives each day at 4 p.m.
“A New England Democrat, Tip and I rarely agreed on policy,” Ridge wrote in Time magazine. “But Tip encouraged camaraderie between the R’s and D’s on the Hill because he knew if there was hatred between us, he simply would not be able to get anything of substance done.”
Maybe that’s the answer — large-scale pickup games before public hearings and debates.
I suspect solutions are harder than that. Like the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to screw in a light bulb, the key is that the bulb has to want to change. The people I’ve seen at recent hearings looked like they wanted to change everything but themselves.
In a recent op-ed for Florida Today, one woman expressed pride in this wave of incivility, which arguably started when tea party supporters began overrunning town hall meetings eight years ago.
“Our Founding Fathers would be proud that we finally ‘got it,’“ she wrote.
There’s that phrase again. Whatever it is people seem to be getting, let’s hope it stops spreading.