As lamentable as the techniques used by demonstrators in recent days are, the shouting down of various members of Congress at town hall meetings may turn out to have the desired effect.
Thirty-seven years of hanging around Capitol Hill has led me to the conclusion that most elected officials have a strong tendency to be risk-averse. From time to time, congressmen won't mind getting somewhat out front of their constituents on a given issue, but not too far out front.
It's one thing to be attacked by an opponent or an outside group during an election; that's just part of the process. It's also part of the process to have people vigorously disagree at a town meeting or similar event. But the scenes we've seen on television and YouTube in recent days, showing members being heckled, verbally assaulted and threatened, are rather extraordinary and not anything that any member of Congress I've ever met would take lightly.
When one person's speech precludes that of another, it corrupts the valuable role that town meetings have played for hundreds of years.
To be sure, political theater and the aggressive, even highly vocal expression of one's feelings are not only constitutionally protected activities, but have been around since the Revolutionary War. It is also true that we have seen such protected speech abused before, whether by Code Pink and others on the left or the "Birthers" and opponents of President Obama's health care reform efforts on the right.
But whether the cause is on the left or the right, when one person's speech precludes that of another, when people in an audience decide that they alone should speak and everyone else should listen, then it corrupts the valuable role that town meetings have played for hundreds of years. People gripe about members of Congress growing out of touch, but what we are seeing now is simply going to create more distance between them and their constituents. Fewer members, certainly ones from swing states and swing districts, will want to subject themselves to such indignity, and therefore there will be fewer town meetings.
For members of Congress who were already starting to get cold feet about backing Obama on health care, it's hard to imagine that these confrontations, whether personally witnessed or just viewed on YouTube, will make them any more likely to take significant risk. No amount of reassurance that these were orchestrated protests from small portions of the audiences will offset the horror that they or their colleagues experienced, nor will it offset the yellow caution light it sends to them on an array of issues.
The sick feeling that some of us are having while watching these events is in part due to the assumption that we have not seen the end of such ambushes and other political guerrilla tactics. Watching a recent YouTube video of Rep. Bob Inglis, a 90-plus-percent conservative Republican from South Carolina, being heckled by constituents who clearly doubted his conservative bona fides serves as further evidence that the raucous discourse of talk radio and the Internet is now spilling over into the broader public discourse. It also illustrates that few, if any, members are safe from such verbal abuse.
Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle will rue the day that the civility of political discourse notched down a bit further. This will become a routine tool for activists and organizers of all stripes for one simple reason: It works.