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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Public Engagement Without Craziness

As yesterday’s staff post reflected, the experience of organized and angry crowds of health reform opponents during summer recess “town hall” meetings is raising some legitimate questions about the value of such events. If participants don’t represent the actual views of people in a given district, what’s the point in giving them opportunities to vent their spleen and gain media attention?
Mark Schmitt of The American Prospect notes today that this is not an unprecedented problem. He cites the widespread protests by seniors against the passage of “catastrophic health coverage” by in 1988 Congress as precedent; the led to the repeal of that legislation just a year later:

The bill had put most of the cost on a small group of wealthy seniors, and after passage, a a direct-mail organization stoked backlash over the funding structure, convincing many seniors they would pay the same $800 surtax as the wealthiest. It is remembered today mostly for the televised scene of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, then chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and, like Dingell, a baron whose authority had gone unquestioned, besieged by angry seniors blocking his car as he tried to exit a similar town meeting.

Schmitt goes on to cite some of the refinements in “astroturfing” since 1989, and concludes that alternatives to the traditional “town meeting” would be helpful to foster genuine representative-constituent communications and public engagement.

At times of big, transformational change, citizens must have a way into the policy-making process, but it can’t be one that’s dominated by the loudest, most disruptive, or best-funded voices. Technology means that people can acquire the text of legislation for themselves, can research members’ voting records, can organize themselves to be heard in a hundred new ways. But it doesn’t make it any easier for a member of Congress to figure out what they think, whether their views are based on misinformation or deeply held beliefs, or how intense their views are.

There are, as Schmitt mentions, some good models out there for more deliberative interaction between the public and its representantives, and better ways to assess genuine public opinion while improving knowledge of substantive issues. Supressing angry voices isn’t right, but neither is listening to no one else.

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