“This is what democracy is all about,” remarked my representative, Dave Trott (R–Mich.), to a room crowded full of constituents, many of whom had just repeatedly chanted “shame” in response to one of his statements. In many ways, this town hall was a microcosm of a larger conflict between Republican congressmen and their alienated constituents that has been happening across the United States since Trump’s inauguration.
Trott was elected to represent the Republican-leaning and probably gerrymandered District 11 in 2014, and this recent town hall was his first since 2015. Since Trump has taken office, this perceived lack of community engagement has angered many of Trott’s constituents, particularly liberals. Some were even turned away from his office by police, leaving them unable to confront Trott with their concerns and fears about his support for Trump.
Soon, the negative coverage revolving around his absence, including “Trott-less town halls” where protesters brought a live chicken to the podium in Trott’s absence, were too much to bear. Trott finally held a town hall, at 8 a.m. the Saturday after St. Patrick’s Day.
The timing of the town hall seemed designed to bring the smallest number of people possible, but not even the snowy weather was an effective deterrent. About 1,000 people came to the town hall, some to voice support, but most to share their rage. The room was too small to fit most of the protesters who came to attend, leaving hundreds outside in the cold.
The town hall itself was full of anger and frustration. Many people screamed, chanted and raised red cards whenever Trott said something they disagreed with. Unsurprisingly, this was not conducive to a productive conversation.
It’s easy to understand the rage these people felt. Politics can make the average citizen feel impotent and incapable of making a difference, which can be particularly scary when policies have the power to deprive them of their health care and ruin their environment. Politics can be deeply personal, and emotions are often unavoidable during political discussions. This can be amplified when your representative doesn’t represent your views and is unwilling to engage you.
Trott guaranteed this response when he avoided having a town hall for so long; he let his frustrated constituents brew in their own rage for weeks before they got a chance to air their concerns.
Prior to the town hall, Trott stated, “If the purpose of the ‘new’ town hall is to be disruptive and draw attention to people’s concerns over the replacement for the Affordable Care Act or President Trump’s immigration policies, I don’t know that a town hall is going to be particularly productive.”
This gives away Trott’s mindset: He thinks he knows that his opinions are right, and no matter what his constituents say, he will not change his opinions. Furthermore, he fails to recognize the importance of conveying his message to his constituents. Trott’s insistence on treating their demands for a town hall as a chore, rather than his absolutely essential civic duty, doomed the town hall from the beginning.
Representatives and their constituents who have different opinions shouldn’t just “agree to disagree” when it comes to policy — the stakes are too high to avoid considering opposing views. Trott needs to listen to his constituents of all political leanings, and he must answer their questions earnestly and honestly. This is hard to do, though, when the only reason you’re having a town hall is because you’ve been publicly shamed into having one. It doesn’t come across as particularly genuine.
All of this isn’t to say, though, that the behavior of the town hall attendees was acceptable. Trott has real legislative power, and the protesters dashed any chance they had of influencing how he wields that power when they chose to angrily yell over his words. This pattern, unfortunately, has been playing out across the country as more and more liberal activists take to town halls.
Is the point of attending these town halls to make your legislator think critically about their political beliefs and about how their votes will affect their constituents? Or is it to shame them? If the goal is to be constructive and make a difference, people need to attend these town halls and make a genuine effort to engage, not just yell.
This, of course, still won’t make a difference in the world if the legislator in question isn’t willing to listen with an open mind and answer questions earnestly and honestly. Legislators can’t just go through the motions of a town hall to avoid being publicly ridiculed. Democracy requires an open exchange of ideas and representatives who actually care about all of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) is an example of how effective this exchange of ideas can be. Cotton, after much public pressure, hosted a town hall that was similarly raucous. His constituents were equally angry, but they were able to ultimately achieve a dialogue. Cotton was confronted with the realities of how health care reform would affect some of his constituents, and he listened carefully to their concerns. Instead of treating the town hall as a chore to get over with, Cotton extended the event by 30 minutes.
Although the direct effect of the town hall is difficult to gauge, Cotton did end up opposing the American Health Care Act. Cotton’s statement on the bill said it did “little to address the core problem of Obamacare: rising premiums and deductibles, which are making insurance unaffordable for too many Arkansans.” To me, this language suggests that Cotton really did listen to his constituents and take their concerns to heart.
I hope that Trott learns from Cotton and other legislators who are making an effort to engage with their constituents. If Trott really cares about the people he represents, he needs to hold another town hall, and actually make an effort this time.
I also hope that those attending the town hall work to contain their anger and articulately register their concerns with him. That is, after all, how minds get changed and “what democracy is all about.”
Mary Kate Winn can be reached at email@example.com.