Congressman Jimmy Duncan, a Knoxville Republican who represents Tennessee’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been catching a lot of flack for refusing a request from a few of his constituents to hold a town hall meeting in East Tennessee.
The drama has played itself out in Duncan’s hometown newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, where letters to the editor and columns have appeared from several people who castigate Duncan’s stance.
The brouhaha started when Duncan penned a letter earlier this month saying that he would not be holding a town hall meeting. “I certainly do not need town halls to tell me how my constituents are feeling on the important issues of the day,” Duncan said in the letter. “Unfortunately, there is more anger in politics today than ever before. And we are receiving many very hateful, very angry emails and phone calls from some on the liberal-left side of the political spectrum. I am not going to hold town hall meetings in this atmosphere, because they would very quickly turn into shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals.”
Duncan went on to say, “I have never seen so many more sore losers as there are today. I opposed most of President Obama’s major initiatives, but I never said anything mean or hateful about him. I attended both of his inaugurations and even had a very friendly flight on Air Force One with him.”
The letter was prompted by the demands of a group calling itself Indivisible East Tennessee, a local chapter of sorts of a resistance movement that is popping up nationwide, with a self-purported mission of instructing others how to “oppose” President Donald J. Trump.
Don Walker, Duncan’s deputy chief of staff, told the News Sentinel: “By the bullying tone of most of these phone calls and emails, he can tell that a public meeting would not be productive.”
Indivisible East Tennessee will certainly argue freedom of speech, and they’re certainly correct. The First Amendment clearly protects the free speech of dissidents of the U.S. government. That, in fact, is one of the things that makes us uniquely American.
At the same time, it’s hard to make an honest argument that Walker is not correct when he says that Duncan’s public meetings would not be productive.
After all, the folks demanding a public forum aren’t shying away from their intent. Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, told the News Sentinel: “(Duncan) doesn’t want to do (town halls) because he knows he’s going to get yelled at, and I think for us to ignore him, it’s him not being a leader. It’s cowardly.”
As Powell resident and my friend Bill Mynatt puts it, “And she wonders why he doesn’t want to hold that kind of meeting?”
Many of those who have expressed offense at Duncan’s letter are focusing on the part calling disruptive citizens “extremists, kooks and radicals,” as well as “sore losers.” It’s strong language, to be sure. And, yet, if you’ve watched the coverage of protests that are taking place across the country, you can hardly call these folks who have vowed to oppose the current administration “civilized.”
While Duncan’s decision is, and will continue to be, decried as a refusal to face his constituents, the disruption that has surfaced since Trump’s Electoral College win in November appears to be far more than angry constituents who are dissatisfied with what is happening in Washington. Instead, it appears to be a carefully orchestrated effort from folks who have no interest in civility or even having an actual discussion about policy.
Take a recent town hall held by a Republican Congressman in California, for example. Tom McClintock wound up leaving the forum, held in Roseville, Calif., with a police escort. And many of those in attendance weren’t his constituents at all, if you read between the lines of a report published by the Sacramento Bee.
Specifically, the newspaper reported: “Many identified themselves as liberal Democrats and progressives, while party registration in McClintock’s district — which incorporates all or part of 10 counties spanning from Tahoe to Yosemite — is solidly Republican.” And one woman told the newspaper that she “drove hours” to be there, meaning she was almost certainly not from McClintock’s district.
Incidentally, the disruptive protest at the California town hall was organized by Indivisible Sierra Nevada, another branch of the same growing organization to which the folks in East Tennessee belong.
That McClintock town hall meeting isn’t the only public forum where protestors have rendered the format completely useless by being disruptive. And, according to a recent CNN story, Republican members of Congress have been warned to beef up security at their events for their own safety and that of their aides.
So here’s what’s going to happen: More and more congressmen like Duncan are going to stop holding public events. That means the majority of U.S. citizens who actually enjoy attending these town hall meetings and both listening to what their elected leaders have to say and voicing their concerns to them will lose access — because of the disruptive behavior of a few.
That’s unfortunate, but it’s hard to assign blame to members of Congress. They have a responsibility o be accessible to and accountable to their constituents. But there’s nothing that says that they have to subject themselves to hatred and incivility, to say nothing of the threat of violence. Refusing to play into the hands of the small group of disruptive citizens who make up the “Indivisible” opposition movement is almost certainly going to be viewed as acceptable by the majority of Americans who have ushered the GOP into power.
So while the First Amendment indeed protects folks like “Indivisible,” you can’t act that way and then screech and whine when the other side doesn’t play along. Because they’re afforded protection under the law, as well. If you truly want to beat them, your best bet is to convince enough of your fellow Americans that you’re right so that you can tilt the polls in your favor during the next election cycle. But you’re probably not going to get there by acting like a horse’s patoot.