Many Utahns are frustrated with Washington. Lawmakers would do well to work toward solving America’s pressing problems.
The current political climate has given rise to a surge of citizen engagement in the public square, as witnessed by the large crowd attending a town hall meeting recently staged by Utah Rep. Chris Stewart. Though such participation is healthy in the democratic process, the nature of the engagement has often left much to be hoped for in the way of well-reasoned, civil dialogue.
The recent Stewart event, and many others like it, appear to draw people mostly interested in venting their anger. It’s probably good practice, however, to let out frustration in an appropriate way such as participating in a town hall event. But in the political world, shouting at an elected representative and drowning out any response he or she may offer is not persuasive or productive. Citizen engagement should not be an aberration reserved only for when it’s time to vanquish exasperation.
Members of Congress hold town meetings ostensibly to stay in touch with their constituents. Attending such a meeting has rarely been a tough ticket, but the Stewart affair, and a town hall with Rep. Jason Chaffetz weeks before, were jam-packed with hundreds left outside clamoring to get in. It’s a clear sign that activism is afoot, and the conventional wisdom is that it’s triggered by anxiety over the direction the nation may take in a Trump presidency. But to be fair, Democrats too have been pelted at public meetings and some have chosen not to stage town hall events in the coming weeks. Perhaps they recall the sting of having to face waves of agitated tea party activists who similarly took their antipathy to town hall meetings during the early years of the Obama presidency.
In both iterations, it’s reasonable to deduce that venting can’t be all about any given politician or the party they belong to. At least in part, it’s also about a general frustration over ineffective governance at a time of sharp partisanship and complex problems. The Senate is playing host to yet another partisan battle over the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. A common chant at the town hall meetings has been, “Do your job.” Whether that translates into “Investigate Trump,” or “Take down Obamacare” isn’t the most salient question. Rather, the important question is how America can get back to a place where citizens trust government and view their representatives as civil servants rather than foes.
The good news about the raucous town hall confrontations is that people are turning out with passion to exercise their civic duty. Our system of government works best when citizens are engaged, and we would hope that those who choose to get actively involved in the process find the experience rewarding. But that would depend on what comes of it.
When the tone and tenor of the encounters is shrill and uncompromising, better understanding and, as a result, better representation, are unlikely a result. The solution, however, is not less dialogue but more, including more town hall meetings and more civic engagement. Attendees should come with challenging questions. And, enough respect on both sides should be displayed to allow for answers — and followup challenges to those answers in a civil exchange of ideas.