clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The massive wave of town hall protests ruining the GOP’s week, explained

They’re not paid protesters.

As members of Congress take a break from the hard work of legislating to go home to their districts, many Republicans are facing a tough reception at town hall meetings. Liberals, echoing tactics used by Tea Party activists in the summer of 2009, are flooding these forums with unusually large and hostile crowds demanding answers about what the GOP plans to do for the millions of Americans who depend on the Affordable Care Act for health care.

Town hall mobilizations have been underway since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and they’ve already led many Republican members to decide they want to avoid holding any public events. President Trump, meanwhile, wants people to know that he finds the whole thing sad.

Trump is, fundamentally, correct that these crowds have been instigated and organized by liberal activists — just as the Tea Party crowds were organized by conservative ones.

But crying astroturf at the Tea Party didn’t stop the GOP from sweeping to a wave of victories in the 2010 midterms. And by the same token, the demonstrations against repealing the Affordable Care Act are clearly having an impact on Republicans’ thinking — slowing down the process and raising real doubts about whether repeal will happen.

What is a town hall?

The town hall concept derives loosely from the New England town meeting, an unusual form of direct democracy practiced to this day in small towns located north and east of New York state.

The way this works (depicted mostly accurately on Gilmore Girls) is that the town government has an executive branch composed of elected aldermen, but relies on the population of the town as a whole to serve as its legislature. But instead of voting on initiatives and referenda at the ballot box on Election Day, they are asked to show up to regular town meetings where issues are discussed and votes are taken. The meetings are normally held in the local town hall, so the basic concept of a public meeting between an elected official and his or her constituents has become known as a “town hall.”

These metaphorical town halls lack any formal governance role, but they turn out to be a form of public appearance that’s well-suited to the relatively informal norms of modern American life.

Televised town halls, in which a cable anchor moderates a discussion between a prominent politician and an audience of “real people,” have become increasingly popular, as have formal candidate debates held in a town hall style.

But lower-profile politicians also regularly hold town halls as a favored form of local public appearance. A century ago, heading into town to watch a member of Congress deliver a speech might be a thing a politically engaged person would do. But the multiplication of possible modes of entertainment and the decline of formal rhetoric as a widely possessed skill have made that kind of formal appearance an increasingly poor fit for the spirit of our age. The town hall in which the elected official humbly presents himself — likely not in an actual town hall building — to performatively listen to what constituents have to say works much better.

This is, at the end of the day, quite different from a New England town meeting. One common underlying presumption, however, is that the attendees will be mostly local busybodies and not representatives of big national political movements.

Normal town halls let members seem helpful

Incumbent members of Congress tend to get reelected in part because having won in the past is simply proof that they’re a reasonably good candidate for the district, but in part because incumbency provides concrete advantages. A member of Congress is in a position to not just talk about things but take specific steps to help constituents. This ranges from low-level constituent service, where staff can help guide voters through some federal agency’s rigmarole, to doing robust advocacy on behalf of local people and interests.

A town hall is an opportunity hear from constituents about these kinds of concerns. Equally importantly, it’s an opportunity to be seen in public hearing from constituents about these concerns.

That kind of relatively mundane, relatively non-ideological work won’t save a candidate’s skin in a massive wave election, but it can easily be worth a percentage point or three on Election Day. Ability to stage these kinds of performances is one of the reasons why, famously, most Americans have a positive assessment of their member of Congress — the person visible in their community working for them — even as they hate “Congress” as a whole.

The protests aren’t genuinely spontaneous — and it doesn’t matter

Liberals spent a lot of time and energy in 2009 trying to prove the point that “tea party” protests at congressional town halls and other events weren’t genuinely spontaneous uprisings. And they were right. It wasn’t the case that thousands of disconnected individuals just happened to decide to show up at members’ events and yell at them about the need to stop Barack Obama’s socialist agenda. Veteran political operatives and organizers helped orchestrate protests, disseminate information about events, and suggest points to raise, and otherwise worked behind the scenes to make the Tea Party a reality.

But liberals who ended up dismissing the whole thing as astroturf hype were making a big mistake.

No big political movement arises without the work of dedicated organizers. But you can’t just organize people to do anything at all. As National Review’s Rich Lowry writes, “What was true in 2009 is true today: In the normal course of things, it’s not easy even for a well-funded and -organized group to get people to spend an evening at a school auditorium hooting at their congressman.”

The passion has to be real. And in both 2009 and 2017, protest organizers can take advantage of two big factors. One is that most people are risk-averse with regard to their health insurance coverage. The other is that lots of people voted for the newly elected president without necessarily buying deeply into his vision of health insurance reform.

The fact that the protests are part of a larger organizing effort is precisely why members of Congress would be wise to pay them some mind. A town hall crowd isn’t a randomized sample of the population, and paying attention to what people who show up at them say is a terrible way to assess the state of public opinion. But it’s a pretty good way to figure out what issues people are actually organized and active on. Organized people do things like show up to vote in midterms, knock on doors for opposition candidates, and otherwise make trouble.

2009 protests hurt Democrats by changing Republicans’ minds

One big difference between the circumstances of today and of eight years ago is that the legislative mechanics in Washington are quite different.

In Obama’s early months in office, Democrats held only 58 or 59 Senate seats, and many of those were in red states. Consequently, the party put a great deal of stock in the idea of bipartisan negotiations over health care legislation — especially the “Gang of Six” process on the Senate Finance Committee that included Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, and Olympia Snowe.

Democrats’ hope was that a bill blessed with the imprimatur of those three Republicans would also secure backing from Susan Collins and several more Republican senators representing states Obama had carried in November. That would allow a Democrat or two to defect if they were so inclined, but more importantly, it would offer bipartisan cover for vulnerable Democrats who wanted to support the bill.

One key result of the Tea Party protests was shifting Republicans’ calculus on the health care issue. It swiftly became clear that collaboration with Obama would profoundly anger the conservative base, which over time persuaded more and more Republicans to pull the plug on dealmaking.

That ultimately didn’t prevent Democrats from passing a major piece of health insurance legislation. But it did ensure that the legislative process was highly partisan, highly contentious, and highly difficult, and ultimately left Democrats representing red states or districts more closely tied to a locally unpopular president than they wanted.

Republicans are not currently pursuing much of a bipartisan process on health care, so there isn’t really an equivalent dynamic in play. Instead, the signal is much more of a direct message to Republicans who represent constituencies where Trump isn’t popular.

Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration

Affordable Care Act defenders’ best hope with these town halls is that facing angry constituents will tend to make Republicans hesitate to act at a time when, realistically, the best chance for repeal is to move very quickly. Repealers’ basic problem, after all, is that they have promised to replace Obamacare’s genuinely flawed plans with something better.

Their actual plan, however, is to repeal the tax increases that pay for most of the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies and then use that new, lower revenue baseline to enact large, permanent tax cuts for millionaires.

This will, inevitably, leave the vast majority of Obamacare enrollees worse off than before. Not because it’s impossible to think of ways to improve on the health insurance status quo, but because once that much money has been plowed into tax cuts, there simply won’t be enough left to go around to offer people adequate coverage.

There’s really no way to turn this bait and switch into something popular. But if Republicans want to do it, they may as well do it quickly. That way, they can hope to minimize the number of people who notice what’s going on, and maximize the distance from Election Day.

If Republicans confronting angry voters start to hesitate and delay, kicking the tires on their legislative options more thoroughly, they are likely to find that there is no way for them to live up to the big promises they’ve run on. The more they wait, the more attention will be focused on the bait and switch, and the more compelling the option of doing nothing will become.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.