Opinion

Will Democrats' town hall revolt actually work?

Republicans are spooked. That says a lot.

President Trump has had it with liberals showing up at the town halls of GOP congressmen and senators.

The idea, of course, is that like the massive nationwide protests against Trump, Democratic organizing around local town halls is somehow not quite real, not the kind of sincere expression of opinion you get when Republicans protest something. "It's not these organic uprisings that we have seen over the last several decades," said Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary. "The Tea Party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, Astroturf-type movement."

Ah yes, the paid-protester charge, one that probably goes back as long as there have been protests. Despite conservatives' insistence that George Soros must be pouring money into liberals' pockets, there's only one person we know of who has paid for a crowd to show up at a political event recently. That, of course, was President Trump, who paid actors to come to his presidential announcement to wave signs and cheer wildly (and of course, he then tried to stiff the company that hired them).

This is a regular argument about protests: whether they are legitimate or not, with the frequent assumption that the more amateur and therefore "organic" they are, the more they have a right to be listened to. But the truth is that the Tea Party was both bottom-up and top-down: It involved the spontaneous creation of hundreds of local groups, and money and guidance from Washington-based organizations like Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity, the political vehicle of the billionaire Koch brothers. That's not to mention constant promotion from a certain cable news network, whose personalities actually appeared at some Tea Party rallies. Let's take a trip down memory lane, courtesy of scholars Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson:

Indeed, during the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network's brand to these protests and allowed members of the "Fox Na­tion" to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers. Megyn Kelly directed viewers to "join the Tea Party action from your home" by going to Fox's website, which allowed viewers to find Tea Party events in their area, and the events were dubbed "FNC [Fox News Channel] Tea Parties." As Glenn Beck put it on his April 6 show: "This year, Americans across the country are holding Tea Parties to let politicians know that we have had enough. Celebrate with Fox News. This is what we're doing next Wednesday." Beck's comment was certainly an apt description since on April 15, Fox News hosts Beck, Hannity, Van Susteren, and Cavuto all broadcast their shows from Tea Party events, as promised. [Reuters]

Did that mean the Tea Party didn't represent anything real? No — it just meant that it got a lot of help. Yet today, the very fact that Democrats are organizing themselves to appear at town halls is taken as evidence that the opinions of the participants are meaningless and can be ignored.

The response most Republican representatives have hit upon in the face of this wave of voter anger is to avoid contact with the voters at all costs. The overwhelming majority are not holding the traditional town halls during the recess that's happening this week, which is understandable. Who wants to stand up in front of a bunch of angry constituents and get yelled at? So they're certainly feeling afraid, or at least deeply uncomfortable.

Making your congressman scared can feel like a victory in itself. But it does raise the question of whether this undeniable public outpouring of anger — both at President Trump and the Republican Congress, particularly at the prospect of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act — can be sustained to win concrete political victories in the future. The fact that it is so well organized suggests that it can.

These actions have an immediate political goal: stopping the repeal of the ACA. They may well help make that happen, though the outcome of that battle is highly uncertain. We know that Republicans in Congress have grown fearful of the consequences of the repeal they've been advocating for the last seven years, and the protests are no doubt giving them a vivid preview of the anger they could face.

But even if the protests don't stop repeal, they can make representatives wary about other unpopular actions they might take. Then there's the questions of future elections: The networks of activists that are building up around this issue can be activated to register and turn out voters in 2018, potentially helping Democrats take back the House. That's what the Tea Party did: It failed to stop the ACA from passing, but succeeded in the 2010 midterm elections, and in pulling the GOP to the right. Another key goal is to take the people protesting what's going on in Washington and turn them into an effective force in state legislative elections.

The first step, though, is empowering people. That may sound like a nebulous goal divorced from practicality, but efficacy is vital to building and sustaining any movement. The participants need to feel like their efforts are having an impact, so that when the next battle comes they're ready to join in.

There's no question that as the president and Republicans in Congress feel the wrath of the public, they're seriously spooked. That's why they're trying so hard to say that the protests aren't real — they're paid, or they're too organized, or they're just a bunch of liberals, or some other excuse for why it's not legitimate. But every time a member of Congress cancels a town hall, you know it's having an impact.

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