Amid the Unwashed Masses

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll probably be seeing a lot of stories in which a member of Congress goes back to the home district and is confronted by worried/angry/surly constituents demanding we stay out of Syria. Here's a piece in today's New York Times about Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in today's Washington Post about Representative Gerry Connolly hearing from skeptical citizens. Here's a piece in Politico about John McCain hearing from skeptical citizens. This is almost invariably described as the politician "getting an earful." For some reason, we never refer to someone getting an earful of praise or support; the ears of our representatives can only be filled with displeasure or contempt.

In the old days before polling, grizzled political reporters would literally go door to door and do their own informal polls to see what people thought about an election or a policy debate; they'd get a sense of the public will, along with some quotes, and they'd have a story. As some point they discovered it's more efficient to just go to a diner, but either way, for all their Northeastern elitism, the reporters still want to keep their finger on the public pulse. But reading some of these stories has me wondering. What do you do when you go out with a member of Congress to get in touch with the people, and the people turn out to be idiots?

I don't mean uninformed; it's possible to know very little about a subject and still have the ability to reason thoughtfully from what you do know. I mean people who are just ridiculous, like the guy who brought a bag of marshmallows to McCain's town hall so he could shake them at the senator, the better to emphasize his insightful point that members of Congress are a bunch of marshmallows. Or these folks we meet in the Times article:

From his bar-side perch at Hot Rod's House of Barbeque here, 57-year-old Wolf Tripp argued that President George W. Bush had ample cause a decade ago to dispatch troops and armor into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. "Look at the mass graves," he declared. "Hussein gassed his own people."

The gassing last month of hundreds of Syrian civilians is entirely another matter. And sending cruise missiles there to punish the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is out of the question, Mr. Tripp said this week.

"What are we going to do, borrow more money from China to fight?"

Mr. Tripp gets some credit for remembering one of the decade-old arguments in favor of the Iraq War, but he loses points for not quite realizing why it might not be the best comparison to draw between that situation and this one, not to mention his shaky grasp of government financing. And then later on, we hear from this woman:

"Obama was against" the invasion of Iraq, Ms. Taylor noted, "and I don't understand why he's changed his stance." Seconds later, she offered an explanation: "He's having trouble keeping his popularity up; this war on guns has made him unpopular. And this is his way of getting back up."

I'll bet the reporter, Michael Wines, had at least a moment of doubt when he was writing his story. Reporters are sensitive to the charge that they're a bunch of elitists, and they don't want it to seem like they're writing a story that could be titled, "Rubes and Half-Wits Express Doubt On Syria." And in fairness, the story also included some quotes from people who were a little more connected to reality. But this is a genuine dilemma. If you're writing an article about What Americans Think, you wouldn't be doing accurate reporting if you just picked out the smartest things anyone told the Congressman during the day you spent following him around. On the other hand, even if it's the really stupid comments that are the most striking and make you reach for your notepad, if you concentrated on them that might not be an accurate representation either.

Unless, of course, the people—at least the ones motivated enough to walk up to a politician and give him an earful—really are fools. Which is entirely possible.

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