History

That Time Town-Hall Revolts Helped Drive Two-Thirds of Congress Out of Office

Looking for lessons in an earlier explosion

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Charles M. Schulz

Once there was an election when about two-thirds of Congress either retired or were defeated. This massive turnover was preceded by a wave of raucous town-hall meetings where hundreds of angry constituents "gathered to draft denunciatory resolutions, deliver angry speeches and, in some cases, stage mock court proceedings against their local House members."

The year was 1816. And if you'd like to hear more about what happened, you're in luck: Joshua Zeitz has written an engaging account of that ballot-box rebellion over at Politico, with a eye trained on how those old town-hall revolts resemble the Tea Party protests of the early Obama years and their anti-Trump counterparts of today. If you grew up thinking of the years after the War of 1812 as a sedate "era of good feelings," Zeitz's story may come as a surprise.

The immediate impetus for the protests of 1816 was the Compensation Act, a bipartisan bill to increase congressional pay. But the broader force at work, Zeitz argues, was a gradual shift away from the idea of explicit elite rule. More Americans were getting the right to vote, in part because new states were competing with old states for citizens. The ruling class was increasingly seen as a faction with its own interests, rather than as the disinterested defenders of the public good. And upstream from politics, a spirit of cultural leveling was overturning the old spirit of deference:

If elites were not the guardians of a fictitious public good, equally, they had no lock on truth or fact. In parallel with the democratization of politics and government, over the first half of the 19th century, professions like the law, medicine and ministry underwent a similar, dramatic democratization, with states loosening educational and licensing requirements. Not everyone approved of these developments. A college president in Pennsylvania anticipated with worry book titles like, "Every Man his own Lawyer," "Every Man his own Clergyman and Confessor," or "Every Man his own physician."

"Truth," grumbled a concerned Federalist, "has but one side and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth."…Another opponent of this new hyper-democratic, relativist spirit warned against a world in which "the unalienable right of private judgment involves the liberty of thinking as we please on every subject."

Two centuries later, we're hearing the same elite anxieties.

Zeitz notes that the Jeffersonians tended to stoke that spirit of revolt. He also notes that the losses of 1816 hit Jeffersonian as well as Federalist incumbents. With that in mind, and with the Tea Party rebellion in the rear-view mirror, he ends his essay with this thought:

Now [the Republican Party] controls every branch of government. They are the elite. And they may soon find, like members of Congress 201 years ago, that the forces of democratic populism are hard to contain, indiscriminate in whom they target and unforgiving of powerful people when they believe that those powerful people have betrayed them.

Read the whole thing here. Related: "Trump Now Faces the Same Public Distrust That Propelled Him Into Office." Also related: "A Short History of Libertarian Moments."

NEXT: Short Circuit: A roundup of recent federal court decisions

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  1. I might be a tad skeptical but I don’t think the raucous town-halls today are quite as authentic as those of 1816.

    1. Those old timers knew how to rabble rabble rabble.

  2. Not all town hall revolts are created equally, Jessee. If the revolts represent a large number of pissed off constituents who are motivated to vote, they are a big deal. If they represent a bunch of paid protesters there to cause trouble, then they don’t mean shit.

    We know which ones the 2010 ones were. The question is what are these? I have yet to see any evidence they are anything but paid protesters. Have you?

    1. These look at lot like 2009/10 to me. Professional organizers helping local/grassroots protesters, with a few ringers in the mix.

      1. http://kpel965.com/recording-p…..ux-bridge/

        Can’t say it speaks for all town-halls, but were any Tea-Partiers instructed to dress like a liberal?

      2. Doesn’t look that way to me at all. More importantly, the town hall revolts were people who had voted for Democrats thinking they were moderates and found out they were voting the way Pelosi told them.

        Who exactly voted Republican in the last election and is now pissed off the Republicans might repeal Obamacare? That doesn’t make sense. At most, it is local people who didn’t vote Republican and thus being angry won’t change the result fo the next election.

    2. 2010 was a response to one party passing a big piece of legislation without much compromise that had a goal of remaking the American health care system.

      2017 is a bunch of whiny children who are mad that their corrupt plutocrat lost the election. IT WAS HER TURN! I could give them the benefit of the doubt and at least say they are legitimately angry about the new immigration restrictions but I’m pretty confident that had Obama made the same restrictions, we would have heard nothing out of them. This isn’t some intellectually consistent movement brewing.

      1. I have trouble thinking that the average citizen was more ideologically consistent in the 1800s. They were probably equally irrational.

      2. ” would have heard nothing out of them. ”
        A buddy, who is still in the local TEA Party leadership, says that the Trump deficit-building proposals have gotten nary a peep from the leadership, yet was a major issue with Obama’s TARP, stimulus, etc. As always, principals not principles.

  3. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending how you look at it), it doesn’t seem the numbers are with the Democrats as far as benefiting, midterm-wise, from the end of the thrilling populist tiger-ride the GOP is taking. If the worst thing that happens is that everyone’s faith in our precious, elite-lousy institutions is shaken, it will be the best thing that can happen.

  4. The map doesn’t look good for Democrats, though. The seats that Republicans have won in the House were from so called ‘Blue Dog Democrats’. There are no more ‘Blue Dog Democrats’, so how are they suppose to retake the House? They’re not going to gain any net seats in the Senate (map is way too difficult for them). In the House they’ll probably win a few net seats, but most of these districts are out of reach for them, unless they decide to nominate moderates again and their base doesn’t seem to want ‘moderation’ on anything.

    1. Hence the big push to get rid of the Electoral college, and even more gerrymandering in the name of getting rid of gerrymandering. The left imagines itself to have the popular majority, and if only they can get more direct elections in place, the more they can win. It’s a delusion of course. No matter how fair the districts, who gets to make the districts matters. They imagine remaking the nation as California (with a permanent super-majority of Democratic districts) but they fail to understand that the same forces work in red states as well. Even if they go their direct democracy in every election wish, they fail to realize that also need to get their own base out to vote, and they can’t do that when they put forward candidates like Clinton. People get out and vote when they have someone to vote FOR and not merely a bogeyman to vote against.

      Nope, the big electoral sea change will only happen when people realize that their OWN congressmen are crooks, and toss them out. Until then it may look like a shifting landscape but it’s still the same old elite getting reelected over and over.

      Sorry, unfocused ranting. Blaming my meds.

      1. I think the only thing that will work at this point is if the proggies form their own country. Most of the districts that are red voted for Trump by big margins, so they can’t really do anything. Maybe they think if they keep throwing shit, some of it will stick, instead they seem to be burying themselves in it.

    2. The seats that Republicans have won in the House were from so called ‘Blue Dog Democrats’. There are no more ‘Blue Dog Democrats’,

      That’s not unusual. In previous races when there was a backlash against Republicans, it was the ‘liberal’ or ‘moderate’ republicans that lost their seats. The phenomenon works a bit like this:

      Party A suffers backlash. Party A has members in firm Party-A territory. They don’t have to moderate their message, they win easily. Party A also has members in Party B territory. Party A member who controls a seat in Party B territory has to constantly moderate his message to appeal to Party B people. When backlash hits, Party B throws out anyone from Party A, regardless of their voting record.

      I remember once a Republican that got thrown out of office and he whined that he never voted for or with the rest of the Republicans on whatever issue everyone was up in arms about.

  5. Sort of OT- Just found out my son’s school will be closed tomorrow because 300+ teachers have called in sick for a “Day Without Womyn.” Another fine self-serving example of well-heeled proggies with nothing to lose fucking things up for those who do, like the poor single mom who sends her kids to a public school and will now have to miss work and possibly lose her job, or at least not get paid for the time she will have to take off.

  6. RE: That Time Town-Hall Revolts Helped Drive Two-Thirds of Congress Out of Office
    Looking for lessons in an earlier explosion

    Ahh…the good ol’ days.

  7. “Truth,” grumbled a concerned Federalist, “has but one side and listening to error and falsehood is indeed a strange way to discover truth.”…Another opponent of this new hyper-democratic, relativist spirit warned against a world in which “the unalienable right of private judgment involves the liberty of thinking as we please on every subject.”

    Leave it to Jesse to find some seriously interesting shit. Nice work. This is one I’m following up on.

  8. The comparison between the Tea Party and the current protests is tenuous at best. The Tea Party was not a reaction to an election or a personality. Obama won with 53% of the vote, 43% White. There was no question of his legitimacy. The Tea Party was not a reaction to his election, it was a reaction to a policy. When Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the CME and rhetorically asked, “Do you want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage?”, the country answered with a resounding, “NO!”

    Conversely, Utah voted 60% to 40% for Trump. Those Utah Trump voters didn’t suddenly turn against Chaffetz. I don’t see those who backed and voted for the winner of the election being highly motivated to go to the town hall. On the other hand, the losers and the people who didn’t vote at all might be more motivated to throw a tantrum at a townhall.

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