Beat Notes From the Town Hall

In the last week or so, we've started seeing scenes from town halls across the country very similar to the angry town-hall meetings inspired by the health-care reform bill in August 2009. This time, Republican members of Congress are the targets. At one town-hall meeting after another, they are getting pointed and sometimes angry questions about their support of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's plan, which would slash government spending and which 235 of the 241 House Republicans approved in a symbolic vote (the budget would never pass the Senate).

Opponents are asking congressmen and women why they supported a plan to turn Medicare into an inadequate voucher program, slash various kinds of spending that benefit the poor and middle class, and at the same time give the wealthy a shower of tax cuts (you can see some video highlights here).

This raises questions not just about the representatives but also about the press. Every day, reporters and editors make a series of decisions about the stories they produce. Who ought to get quoted? Which factual claims need investigating? Which story should go on the front page or at the top of the broadcast? The most basic decision, though, is the first one: Is this -- this event, this statement, this incipient trend, this conflict -- newsworthy? Is it something that demands our attention and that our audience needs to know about? Or can we ignore it and cast our gaze elsewhere? In the beginning, at least, the press' answer to the question about these recent town halls was mostly to ignore them.

Contrast that with how much the 2009 town halls filled the airwaves over that slow-news summer. For national journalists, living and working in the particular bubble that is Washington, it's always dangerous to try to get a handle on public opinion. All the ways to assess just what constitutes "the public," and how we can understand what it believes, feels, is motivated by, and is likely to do, are imperfect.

So a small number of angry citizens managed to convince the media that what they were saying, whether it be in a protest or a petition or a series of confrontations with politicians, was a meaningful and consequential representation of what the American people as a whole were feeling about the Affordable Care Act. It seemed like a dramatic outpouring of grassroots anger. Democratic members of Congress were yelled at, shouted at, screamed at, and shrieked at by constituents horrified that socialism (in the form of a health-care reform bill in which citizens would continue to receive care from private physicians in private hospitals paid for by private insurance companies) had arrived in America. And it played out again and again on the evening news, a vision of the public rising up against Democrats and against big government.

It quickly became apparent that the town-hall outbursts were not so grassroots after all, but were encouraged, organized, and coordinated by the a number of national and local conservative organizations, most notably FreedomWorks, a group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and funded generously by the likes of the now-famous Koch brothers. The key role of elite conservatives and business interests in the town-hall revolt might call into question the degree to which it could be understood as an expression of "public opinion," though it was certainly treated that way.

So now journalists are asking again: Are these town meetings news? They're asking again whether the outbursts are real, whether they are an outpouring of genuine sentiment, or are instead manufactured. Republicans argue vehemently that the whole thing is being orchestrated, and therefore journalists should ignore it. They're half right -- there is some organization at work, but no less than there was in 2009.

But something can be orchestrated and genuine at the same time. After all, the people appearing at the town halls aren't actors. They're truly upset, even if they've been handed some talking points. Town halls have always been a performance, an opportunity for the politician to demonstrate his concern for the common folk and his consideration for their opinions, however uninformed or unreasonable they might be. He would listen intently, smile warmly, place his hand on a shoulder or two in a show of familiarity and affection. But now, the town hall has become an opportunity for citizens to perform. They are the ones whose voices draw the cameras -- but only if they raise those voices to a pitch of indignation.

Democrats might argue that the current town halls show the true public opinion, which had been latent, activated by political conditions. That's because when it comes to the kind of opinion we can measure, the Ryan plan produces an inversion of what we saw two years ago (and still see) with the Affordable Care Act. Throughout the health-care debate, polls showed consistently that the public was split when asked to give their thumbs-up or -down to something identified only as "health-care reform" or "President Obama's health-care plan." However, when polls described the actual contents of that reform, nearly every provision (with the notable exception of the individual mandate) received overwhelming support. The opposite is happening now with Ryan's budget: When asked whether they preferred "the Republican plan put forth by Congressman Paul Ryan or the Democratic plan put forth by President Barack Obama," respondents are equally divided. But when the pollster explains what Ryan's budget actually does, majorities oppose it, particularly the seniors on whom Republicans depend.

So which is the true reflection of public opinion: what people think about what little they know, or what people think when you give them a little information? The answer is that both are, as are the things people are willing to stand up and shout.

After a few days of ignoring the new anti-Republican town-hall conflicts, journalists are taking notice. Democrats may manage to change the narrative around the Republican budget from "Republicans have a bold and courageous plan to get us out of debt" to "Republicans want to dismantle Medicare so they can give more tax cuts to the wealthy." In the process, Americans watching the news may actually learn a bit about what the Republican budget does. Which can't be a bad thing.

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