3 Things to Look for in 2017's Shouty Townhall Season

As Jason Chaffetz gets heckled and Justin Amash gets applauded, it's worth thinking about media double standards, political honesty in the age of Trump, and the terrifying intimacy of health care.


Yesterday there were at least three townhall congressperson-constituent meetings that broke onto my news radar. Each of them, I think, suggests a different trend to watch out for as we get into what looks like the most contentious political feedback season since the Obamacare/Tea Party summer of 2009.

First up is the one you've probably already seen, of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, getting absolutely grilled last night by an estimated audience of 1,000 (with another thousand protesting outside) in Cottonwood Heights, Utah. You can watch the whole roiling mess at this link; here's a representative clip many people have been passing around:

Chaffetz is a particularly ripe target for people unhappy with Donald Trump (Utah, you will recall, voted just 45.5 percent for Trump, compared to an average of 64.7 percent for the previous 10 Republican presidential nominees, giving him a winning margin of 18 percentage points compared to the average 37). Not only did the baby-faced congressman go back on his emotive unendorsement of Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood "grab 'em by the pussy" tape, he has also indicated on several occasions that his committee will go much lighter on Trump—even going so far as threatening Trump's critics—than it has on never-president Hillary Clinton.

So you can understand why particularly left-leaning media outlets are reacting to the Chaffetz-chastening with undisguised glee. Which leads us to our first Thing to Look For this townhall season: 1) Blatant media hypocrisy.

I for one enjoy the sight of elected politicians getting screamed at by their constituents. But I also enjoyed it in 2009, when my journalistic colleagues were not so enthusiastic. "Shouting down speakers is never a good thing," warned the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne back then, in a column denouncing "the politics of the jackboot." Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar Jamie Stiehm fretted that "When long-serving Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) and Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.) are shouted down by hostile home crowds, then we've got trouble." Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters, in a piece headlined "Lynch-Mob Mentality Stirs Health-Care Debate," blurted that "Americans are flocking to town-hall meetings, screaming and shouting down nonplussed legislators, brandishing guns and throwing around false rumors as if they were hand grenades." These examples are just the tip of a very large iceberg of 2009 panic.

Given that anti-Trump violence during his presidency has already far surpassed the sum of actual violence found at those constituent meetings and Tea Party gatherings (and it's not even close), we should check in on our 2009 hyperventilators, as well as the archives of media outlets who will surely cheer on every Chaffetzian replay, as a basic act of media hygiene.

2) Comparative responses to political straight-shooters. Say, were any well-attended congressional townhalls less contentious yesterday?

Oh, it's not as though Amash's constituents didn't challenge and occasionally boo him on Obamacare, Betsy DeVos, and gun rights, but as Politico reported in a piece headlined "How one GOP congressman tamed pro-Obamacare protesters," the libertarian Republican (who I interviewed about Trump's travel ban last week) responded to the challenges with a cheerful honesty about where he stands:

Instead of getting defensive or ducking for cover, though, the 36-year-old Michigan lawmaker leaned in, coolly explaining his position on the health care law. He made a point of trying to connect with the overwhelmingly Democratic room, jabbing President Donald Trump for what he called racially insensitive remarks and overreaching policies. Amash seemed to enjoy the give-and-take so much that he stayed 40 minutes longer than scheduled and promised to book an even bigger venue next time. […]

"Most of my colleagues, unfortunately, go with the flow; they want to stick to their comfort zones in many cases," Amash told POLITICO in a brief interview after the event. "This doesn't make me uncomfortable. I like to be here, hearing the different perspectives. I'm not afraid of my positions."

Of course, as Politico also noted, "In one sense, Amash's unique libertarian views give him room to maneuver where other Republicans can't. While he's one of the most conservative members of Congress, Amash has openly criticized Trump for months." You don't say!

Speaking of Obamacare, that leads us to our third Thing to Look For at these meetings: 3) Reminders that health care is so important that maybe there's a better way than subjecting it to the whims of national politics.

Here's the clickbait-tastic Marie Claire headline on a video clip the left side of my Twitter feed was excited about last night: "Tennessee Woman *Shuts Down* a Republican Town Hall About Obamacare with One Epic Question." The clip in question, from a Murfreesboro meeting with Rep. Diane Black:

While terrified Republicans grapple with owning the latest massive change to the national health care system, here's an under-explored thought: Why on earth are we subjecting such an important, intimate part of our lives to the dreary, zero-sum incompetence of national politics? We will see hundreds more moments like the clip above, as well we should. Here's hoping it leads to people keeping their eye on the prize of making more (and many more types of) health insurance available, in part by removing the provision of care as much as we can from a political arena that's already soaking up way too much of our attention.