NOTHSTINE: Town halls vital to democracy

Stephen Summers of Virginia Beach (C) speaks with U.S. Representative Scott Taylor (R-VA) during a town hall meeting at Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach

The political divide and partisan activism may threaten future access to lawmakers. Many Republicans, including some in the North Carolina delegation, are scaling back the traditional town hall to avoid hostility and wrath from constituents. Activists hope that the rising anger by some, partly due to a potential loss of Obamacare and partly due to Donald Trump, will fuel a national backlash with electoral consequences.In a recent letter, Sen. Thom Tillis wrote: “It has become apparent that some individuals… attend town halls just to create disruptions and media spectacles. This is particularly unfortunate because it leads to a scenario in which only the loudest voices in the room can be heard and very little meaningful discussion can actually occur.”These new, more hostile encounters are not merely a phenomenon of the left. During the tea party movement and conservative backlash, constituents stormed town halls. Filming confrontations with a lawmaker for the sole purpose of creating a viral video on YouTube was one of several popular tactics to encourage opposition to government policies. The rise of social media fuels national organized resistance, or what some critics call “astroturfing.” Certainly, both ends of the political spectrum can shoulder plenty of blame for today’s political discourse.But face-to-face meetings between lawmakers and constituents are vital for the health and vitality of the republic. “Government to be safe and to be free, must consist of representatives having a common interest and a common feeling with the represented,” declared the 19th century lawmaker John Randolph of Roanoke.Face-to-face meetings can help launch important congressional action and oversight. Veterans may find out important benefits they are entitled to receive. Citizens could receive help on a host of important issues, such as immigration or social security.Sens. Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms were known for excelling at constituent services. Strong constituent services help lawmakers stay in Congress and build seniority. That, of course, has advantages and disadvantages. But a well-trained and energetic staff also helps real Americans who face problems where only congressional action might provide real relief, especially as a way to fight a sometimes frustrating and unresponsive executive branch.Civil disobedience and disagreement should be encouraged. But citizens amped up to merely shout down lawmakers should consider the lack of access it may mean for those more deserving of congressional assistance and time. Lawmakers too should make themselves more available for those who oppose them.Democracy, it’s often said, is messy. But politicians voluntarily accept a messy job when they decide to run for office, and should act accordingly. Ray Nothstine is a member of the North State Journal’s editorial board, separate from the news staff. Unlike other newspapers, the North State Journal does not publish unsigned editorials; the author or authors of every editorial, letter, op-ed, and column is prominently displayed. To submit a letter or op-ed, see our submission guidelines.