Opinion

It’s not ‘Astroturf’ if the Anger is real

Politicians should pay attention to protesters

Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz says he “absolutely” believes that disruptions at a recent town hall meeting in his district were orchestrated by paid protesters. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

To town hall or not to town hall? That is the question Republicans are struggling with this week as they’re putting their recess schedules together. 

If they hold town hall meetings, they could risk a “Chaffetz,” like the moment last week when an angry crowd shouted Rep. Jason Chaffetz down in his Utah district with news cameras on hand. But refusing to hold town hall meetings could make a member look out of touch or scared to meet with their own voters. A “tele-town hall” feels like a happy medium, right? Members can say they’ve met with constituents, without actually having to meet with constituents.

But regardless of how Republicans are choosing to spend their recess, they seem to be in agreement that the rash of protests since President Donald Trump’s election, including those at GOP town hall meetings across the country, are paid for and organized by professionals and are thus, unimportant.

Outside agitators?

Chaffetz told the Deseret News he “absolutely” believed paid protesters had orchestrated the disruptions he dealt with, suggesting it was “more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” than a reflection of his own constituents’ sentiments. 

Rep. Steve King of Iowa predicted to Politico that the demonstrations would last “until they run out of funding.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed the town hall disruptions as basically fake.

“It’s not these organic uprisings that we have seen over the last several decades,” Spicer said. “The tea party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, AstroTurf-type movement.”

If the “AstroTurf” excuse sounds familiar, it should. It was at the heart of near identical denials from Democrats in August 2009, when protesters showed up at their town hall meetings to rail against the Obamacare bill then moving through Congress. Then, as now, members of Congress faced angry crowds. And then, as now, many congressional leaders dismissed the sentiments as manufactured and, ultimately, irrelevant.

“We call it ‘AstroTurf,’” said then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2009 of the images of angry voters in her members’ districts. “It’s not really a grass-roots movement.” Around the same time, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reidheld up a green square of plastic grass at a Capitol Hill press conference. “I just wanted to show you what AstroTurf really is,” Reid said. “This is not grass-roots.” 

Rep. John Dingell, who chaired the House committee that wrote the Obamacare bill, called the protesters “an array of itinerant troublemakers and agitators who are out stirring up trouble.”

It was real, people

But the reality was different from Democrats’ spin. The anxiety and frustration around the country was real, even if it was eventually organized under the tea party banner. Voters were genuinely worried about health care reform, the economy and the direction of the country. The unusually large and emotional protests reflected that. But denying the legitimacy of the protests let Democrats deny the need to change course.

That turned out to be a catastrophic error. In the midterm elections in 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate. They lost control of the House and set themselves up to lose control of the Senate shortly thereafter.

Among the seats that went to Republicans were those in districts where the most vocal protesters had disrupted town hall meetings a year earlier. Rep. Tom Periello was hammered by questioners in his rural Virginia district and lost his seat the next year. 

Several other endangered Democrats held no meetings. Others, like Reps. Earl Pomeroy and Chet Edwards, chose to do tele-town halls, which their constituents complained shielded them from tough questions about the health care bill. Pomeroy lost his at-large seat in South Dakota by 10 points to Rick Berg in 2010, marking the first time in 30 years a Republican had won the seat. Edwards lost by 25 points to Bill Flores in his Texas district.

In the end, it didn’t matter whether the Democrats did meetings in person, over the phone, or not at all. The anger was real, Democrats ignored it, and upset, energized voters had the last word.

It isn’t often that you get a chance to learn from history when the ink is barely dry on the first draft of events. But that seems to be the opportunity Republicans have in front of them. Like the Democrats in 2009, they can ignore what’s happening and forge ahead with their plans no matter what. Or they can acknowledge voters’ feedback, even when they disagree with it, and do their jobs accordingly.

As any out-of-work congressman can tell them now, just because a protest is organized doesn’t mean the anger isn’t real.

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