There was a curious observation in The Seattle Times a few weeks ago about those who elected Donald Trump into office. “They don’t hold large protests in the streets,” business columnist Jon Talton wrote of our Trump-loving countrymen. “They just vote.”
With all due respect to Jon, that isn’t so. As anyone who lived in the self-proclaimed “real America” in 2009 can attest, the constituency that—in hindsight—represented the seething electoral protoplasm from which Trump would rise did indeed march in the streets. Over and over. They called themselves the Tea Party, and after President Obama’s election they were a rambunctious staple at nearly every public political gathering with enough Republicans to fill out a colonial color guard . Along with taking to the streets, Tea Party activists made their presence known at the town-hall meetings that members of Congress would hold during congressional recesses. “Screaming constituents, protesters dragged out by the cops, congressmen fearful for their safety—welcome to the new town-hall-style meeting” is how Politico described the bedlam that had come to define these once-sleepy affairs.
We feel compelled to recount this near-ancient history not because of what Talton wrote—Lord knows he could find a few lines in this paper to nitpick—but because of the amnesia it represents. As those who oppose the Republican agenda have flooded the streets in protest, the political right has looked on with an arrogance and disdain maddening in its hypocrisy. But worse, our political leaders seem to have internalized this false historical arc—to the point that they are using the protests as an excuse to abdicate a central element of their job: meeting constituents to hear their concerns.
To wit, no Republicans in Washington’s congressional delegation have scheduled an in-person town hall during the recess that begins this weekend. This includes Congressman Dave Reichert, King County’s sole Republican member of the U.S. House, whose staff has cited a fear of acrimony to explain why they will not be hosting a meeting with constituents. As reported by The Stranger, the congressman’s field director wrote in an e-mail to a North Bend constituent that town halls “were not successful because they turned into screaming matches amongst some of the participants.” That is, the very tactic that the Tea Party invented and the Republican establishment applauded in order to hamstring and oppose the new Obama administration is now being used by Republicans as an excuse for not facing constituents. Instead, Reichert plans to host a Facebook Live event, in which questions will be moderated and any possibility for true human connection will be precluded by Facebook’s dehumanizing veil.
This is troubling. In a case of history coming full circle, the most pressing issue at the chaotic 2009 town-hall meetings was the health-care reform effort that would produce the Affordable Care Act, the possible repeal of which promises to dominate political debate this year. But while the Democrats who supported the ACA took a necessary-evil approach to meeting with angered constiuents—“People have gotten fired up and all that, but I think that’s what makes town halls fun,” one federal lawmaker told Politico during that summer of discontent—Republicans seem to be approaching repeal in a defensive crouch that aims to protect them from direct criticism. Yes, Reichert has shown leadership as a moderate Republican in speaking out against several of Trump’s anti-immigration efforts. He should show leadership again and meet his constituents face to face.
It’s a leadership sorely lacking in our state, on both sides of the aisle. For while none of Reichert’s Republican colleagues across Washington have planned a town hall, Democrats aren’t doing much better. According to The Town Hall Project, which tracks these things, Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district stretches from Montlake Terrace to Bellingham, is alone among the Democrats’ Washington Congressional delegation in hosting a meeting with constituents. He had two “town talks” last weekend, and judging by photos published on his Facebook page, there were no screaming matches. Just a representative, constituents, and the everyday work of democracy.
That’s not to say things couldn’t get testy at a town-hall meeting, especially one hosted by a Republican. But if you have the courage to fuss with people’s health care, you should also have the courage to face them in a public setting and defend your position. As Democrats circa 2009 can attest, that’s a fact of life when you’re a member of the party in power.
Correction An earlier version of this story stated that 120 people attended the first Tea Party rally. According to our own reporting at the time, there were 200 in attendence. The story has been corrected.