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Saturday, February 20, 2010
Reflections on Senator Hatch's Audience in American Fork

This long post is not intended to be a detailed report on US Senator Orrin Hatch's town meeting in American Fork on Wednesday, though it contains a lot of detail about things that were said there by the audience. It is more a collection of my reflections on that audience -- what they said, how they acted, how they fit into our participatory democracy. Fair warning is given: I do some name-calling. I identify some statements from the meeting as suggesting cluelessness, and some others as suggesting closed-minded right-wing zealotry. My months-old political optimism was threatened briefly by what I saw and heard; here I also explain what restored it. Finally, I tell you why I think all this matters.

US Senator Orrin Hatch held a town meeting at American Fork Junior High Wednesday evening. It was scheduled to run for two hours, but went longer by about half an hour. The turnout was noteworthy: about 400 people, mostly from American Fork and other north Utah County communities, from Orem to Saratoga Springs. After the event, I returned home and wrote a short piece about it in a journalistic vein, for a new electronic publication about which I'll tell you more soon.

Here I fully intend to be less objective.

It's debatable whether the star of the show Wednesday evening was the Senator or the audience. I'm writing here mostly about the audience, but I should probably tell you what I think of the Senator before diving into that.

Where I'm Coming From, Senator Hatch-wise

I arrived a little early, in case the crowd was so large that there wouldn't be enough seats. You never know about a town hall meeting these days. I was also hoping to say hello to the Senator, which I did before the meeting, as he greeted people at the auditorium door. He and my father go back more than 50 years; that attachment is personal, not political.

In political terms, Hatch has only been one of my Senators for about 15 of his 34 years in the Senate -- during my periods as a Utah resident, that is -- but I've been watching him for more than 20 years. I've written about him here before. I generally like his politics, though not on every issue. When I interned at the US Senate -- not in Senator Hatch's office -- I came to see him as part of three small minorities which only slightly overlap: the smart Senators, the good Senators, and the hardworking Senators. Being in the intersection of those three groups makes him part of what we might call a super-minority.

That doesn't mean I always agree with him, but I have particularly appreciated his work on the Senate Judiciary Committee. I am fully persuaded that we have a much more conservative US Supreme Court now, and for the last decade or two, than we would have had without his efforts. That is a very big deal.

As I have written before, I do not share some Utah conservatives' apparent conviction that any legislative compromise is an unforgivable betrayal of principle. Nor do I think Hatch in the wrong for befriending the late Senator Edward Kennedy, instead of spitting on him in the Capitol elevator. So I don't feel obligated to see Hatch as a villain. I flatter myself that this frees me to listen to his thoughts and explanations and weigh them on their merits, even to learn from him, rather than measuring every word and phrase he speaks to see if I can somehow justify taking offense at it and condemning him for being insufficiently orthodox.

I already knew Hatch's positions on major issues and his basic philosophy, but I tend to learn something when I hear him speak, even if it's only some details to fill in a picture of which I already know the outlines. Wednesday evening was no exception. As to his performance in the meeting, it was excellent. There are a few things I might have suggested he handle differently, had I been his adviser and had there been an opportunity, but let's not underestimate the difficulty of facing two and a half hours of somewhat unpredictable comments and questions, and a crowd that is mostly but not entirely civil. He did well.

My Optimism

One more note before we really dive in, some necessary context.

Last year, by late summer, I was feeling optimistic, as tens of thousands of mostly-ordinary Americans woke up and showed some political life and some basic American instincts in favor of freedom. They seemed to find the proposed federal takeover of health care and Washington's unparalleled fondness for deficit spending unpalatable and, more to the point, grievous violations of common sense. I praised these Americans here at the blog, particularly in "'Yankee Doodle, Keep It Up'," one of my favorite (and happiest) essays last year.

As much attention as I paid to things last summer, this Wednesday's town hall meeting was my first exposure to the Tea Party contingent en masse. This was one of the major reasons for my attending. If they showed up, I wanted to observe them. I am certainly not saying that everyone in the meeting was a Tea Partier, but in any case it was more the crowd that I was there to study than the Senator.

There is a movement afoot, these last several months, a reawakening, of which the Tea Partiers are only a part. To some degree this larger movement is the rising up of common sense against a certain type of foolish despotism; you might say I was there in part to measure that degree. But the uprising is not homogeneous. It has threads in it which defy common sense in a variety of ways and which themselves are not conducive to healthy debate and good government, of which more below. It certainly makes for an interesting crowd at a town meeting.

Three Demographics

One generally wants to avoid name-calling and pigeonholing, but to make my points I will do a little of both. Be advised that I don't have a comprehensive survey of everyone there; I can only judge the size of each demographic that evening by the people who commented and asked questions, by how many applauded what, by the people who yelled from the audience, by what they yelled, and so forth. Moreover, not everyone who might have at least one foot in a category embraces it fully and takes it to an extreme. But I will explain a couple of my categories in terms of those who do exactly that.

There were the basically clueless, who appeared to be a very small minority. These alternately frustrated, amazed, and even amused me, but they didn't dispirit me, where the prospects for pursuing good government are concerned.

There were the closed-minded right-wing zealots. The most visible of these were there to lecture the Senator when they could, take offense at whatever he might say that did not both please and pander to them, and pat themselves on the back for their manifest rightness -- or perhaps righteousness would be a better word. I confess, these threatened my long-standing optimism for a while, until I considered the evidence that they, too, were a minority, even in that room.

Then there was the much larger group, a clear majority, I think, who displayed some evidence of common sense, even though they didn't command a majority of the question-and-answer turns at the microphone. No doubt this demographic spans a wide variety of philosophical positions and views on specific issues; that is a productive diversity, and I would even dare to say there is a measure of safety in it.

As for you, gentle reader, if you find that you are willing to consider others' views, and if you are put off by the clueless and zealous categories, I'm perfectly content if you see yourself as belonging to the common sense contingent. Most of you already know that I think all my readers are above average.

Some of the symptoms I'm about to describe may fit either of my negative categories, and perhaps there should be another category for essential, non-specific rudeness, but let's see how this goes.

You May Be Basically Clueless if . . .

  • In a two-hour meeting with 400 hundred other people, most of whom want to ask questions, you think it's appropriate to read a long, badly written statement, followed by a three-part question and follow-up.
  • You think the problem in Washington is the rise of an aristrocracy, and you advocate ridding ourselves of the aristocracy, but you don't have enough historical perspective to appreciate the colossal grimness of that suggestion. (Hint: For a good start, think of France's many bloody revolutions, and Communism's numerous, more recent, more massive bloodbaths.)
  • You worry about big government's encroachments on your freedom and upon the states -- as do I -- but you think that the problem is campaign contributions, and the solution is for the government to finance the campaigns of all candidates on equal terms. (Free speech and limited government apparently are not things you value, after all, or perhaps you simply don't understand them.)
  • You're not sufficiently well-versed in arithmetic and government to know that 41 votes is not a majority in the US Senate, so you wonder why Republicans aren't imposing their will on Washington.
  • You complain that all taxation is "legalized robbery." (There are compelling arguments to be made against excessive taxation, but a national government without the power to tax is six different kinds of disaster. Does anyone remember the Articles of Confederation?)
  • You think your job search has been long, diligent, and even arduous because you've sent out about 25 resumes in recent months. You think your failure at it is the Senator's problem. (I wish you well in your search, but you need to work harder than that.)
  • My personal favorite: You think you can't find a good job because all the businesses which otherwise would employ you are too busy trying to make a profit, and you want them stopped. (Real solution: make yourself valuable in some way so they think hiring you will help them make a profit. Or emigrate to a communist country where the economy will be more to your liking.)
  • Last and possibly least, you are male, but you wear your hat or baseball cap indoors. (This is disrespectful of both the place and the people you meet there.)

You May Be a Closed-Minded Right-Wing Zealot if . . .

  • You don't want the federal government to buy health care for all Americans, but you think it should buy every American a copy of the US Constitution. (I admit there's a huge difference of scale here, but the implication is that the extension of government power wouldn't trouble you, if it were used to impose your values instead of someone else's.)
  • You think it is acceptable behavior, when a US Senator is explaining why he disagrees with your almost impossibly shallow and intolerant political philosophy, to interrupt him with yells of, "You don't get it!" (You're about one-third right. Someone doesn't get it.)
  • Speaking of which, you think that there are only two political philosophies, the US Constitution and Marxism, and that all other philosophies are one or the other of these, by other names. (At some point on the way to two degrees in political science and political thought, I learned that not all socialists -- let alone all statists -- are Marxists. Moreover, the dangerous sort of socialism in the United States right now, Obama's socialism, isn't Marxism -- but it's still dangerous. And there are many political philosophies, not just two.)
  • They're hurrying to get in as many questions as possible, as the meeting draws to a close, but you use your turn, first, to make a substantial, self-congratulatory statement unrelated to actual issues, and then to raise the tired matter of President Obama's birth certificate.
  • You think we're slipping away from the Constitution and toward fascism, and that's bad -- I'm on board so far --but you want to solve the problem by arresting and trying those with whom you disagree, that is, every public official you think has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution, by failing to be faithful to your interpretation of that Constitution. (Apparently, tyranny is fine with you, as long as it is your tyranny.)
  • You prefer your representatives to be uncivil, useless, contentious ideologues, rather than effective, reasonably polite legislators. (You would rather have every offensive play run by your football team be a long pass attempt, despite the fact that you would almost certainly lose every game, than put in some running plays and short passes and actually win.)
  • (This is mostly a restatement of the previous item.) You think any degree of political compromise is an unforgivable violation of principle, and you would rather lose everything than win something less than absolutely everything. (This level of narcissism is more suited to a monarchy or some other absolute system than to a democratic republic, but I don't imagine it's very appealing there, either. For good or ill, many such regimes have a particularly personal and permanent sense of what it means for you to lose everything.)
  • You think that you and this guy are polar opposites, instead of people with similar mindsets who disagree on one important issue: He demands that a legislator explain to his satisfaction why the legislator is opposed to gay marriage, even though his own words and demeanor fairly scream -- and I use the word scream advisedly -- that he will never accept any such explanation, if it is offered. When the discussion finally moves on to the next question, he keeps talking loudly with people around him, making it difficult for others to hear the next question and answer.

I'm being rather critical here, I know. It's entirely possible that some of the things I'm picking at -- all of which were actually said -- weren't precisely what the speakers meant. People get nervous, and things don't come out right. Or they get caught up in the emotion of a crowd and say things which do not reflect their actual thoughts, when they cool off and think more rationally.

I'm not saying they shouldn't speak. I am saying that, if what they said is what they meant, we face the problems I've identified, which complicate efforts to restore fiscal sanity and a dominant sense of limited government to our nation. And if they didn't mean what they said, we need them to calm down, think twice, and say what they mean, so that they do not confuse and obstruct their own worthy causes.

Optimism Threatened, but Only Briefly

The foregoing was almost enough to send my optimism reeling. I shudder to think that the majority of the recently-energized among our citizenry might be useless and bordering on dangerous -- if they meant what they said. (I think some of them did.). I comforted myself with these thoughts:

First, if you took all the people who held the microphone in the meeting, then added to the group me (I didn't speak) and a few people there whom I knew, and finally asked me which of these would be the best and most effective conservative Senator in Washington, the person I would pick, without the slightest hesitation, would be the man who already has the job. Sometimes the system works.

Second, most of the people there were polite and civil, and the statements which the most people applauded were the sensible ones, not the clueless or wing-nut ones. For example, one articulate woman explained that she was no longer a Republican, because she was so angry with both parties for being so out of touch with reality. (For what it's worth, I share her sentiments, but prefer to try to change the party from within -- a course of action Hatch recommended, too.) Her exclamation, "No more spending!" got more of an ovation than any of the nutty stuff.

There was also a substantial ovation at the first mention of Sarah Palin. She is not exactly a philosopher, perhaps, but she is proving very disruptive of politics-as-usual. It's a very useful sort of disruption. The idea of allowing people to opt out of future Social Security taxes and benefits also got good applause. It may not be the best answer, but it's a very sensible thought, worthy of serious consideration. There was also ample applause for Hatch's opposition to the bailout and the health care takeover. I was pleased to see that no one really seemed to care about the BCS -- at least not at a level to justify discussing it next to the really big issues of the time (of which it is not one).

Third, though some of the people present have been at this political thing a long time -- notably including some of the zealots -- a lot of people are relatively new to it. As they stay engaged, which I earnestly hope they will, they'll learn more about the processes, the issues, and the means which exist for making a point without being barbaric. If we're going to be happy about people getting involved who have never been involved before, we have to be willing to accept a healthy measure of rookie abuses and mistakes -- as long as they learn to rise above them. (I've made a male donkey out of myself in some political venues by making the same kind of rookie mistakes, especially in my youth, broadly defined.)

Fourth, the actual sitting US Senator in the room tried to be agreeable and conciliatory, where he could, and he spent a fair amount of time talking about his accomplishments and current activities. But he listened more patiently than I did. He didn't shy from serious talk. He was perfectly willing to disagree where necessary. Despite the rude people who began by saying (falsely), "I'm not going to ask you a question, because you haven't answered any yet," he really did respond to most of the questions. And he not only lives in the real world, politically; he was good at explaining (over and over again, in a case or two) the basic political realities which seemed to be lost on some of his interlocutors. Not every US Senator can or wants to deliver such a performance.

An example: Hatch said that he likes the "tea party" movement generally -- as do I, by the way, in some of the same ways I like Sarah Palin -- but strongly emphasized the great threat to conservatism if they try to become their own party. (See my news article, linked to in the first paragraph of this post, for more quotations on that theme and an excellent case study Senator Hatch offered.) He also expressed the concern -- which I think I have already validated in this post -- that "some of you are as anti-Constitutional as [the Left]."

These four realizations were enough to rescue my optimism for the present, and to keep me from muttering under my breath, as I walked to my car after the meeting, either Rush Limbaugh . . .

"The country is finished."

. . . or Alexis de Tocqueville:

For my part, I own that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty which seems to animate my contemporaries. I see plainly enough that the nations of this age are turbulent, but it is not clear to me that they are freedom-loving. And I fear that at the end of all these agitations which rock thrones, [governments] may be more powerful than ever before. (Democracy in America. Ed. J.P. Mayer. Tr. George Lawrence. Garden City, NY: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969, p. 689.)

Some Final Happy Thoughts

In no particular order . . .

We were 100 minutes into the meeting before someone advocated Cleon Skousen's sensible book, The Five Thousand Year Leap. And when someone mentioned it, I was pleased that she didn't feel obligated to read to us from it at length, as a certain sort of local zealot often does in political meetings. Within some well-defined bounds, I'm actually a Skousen fan and have been for decades. (My Skousen book of choice is The Making of America, which overlaps somewhat with that other one.) He was a pretty smart guy, where US government is concerned. But that book has become the banner for a particular sort of zealotry, which at the very least is wasting a lot of energy that could otherwise be spent on effective political activism.

One of the last questions was a very fine one: How do we keep our children from getting cynical about government and politics? Teach them how it works, was the answer I remember. (I wrote the question in my notes, but nothing about the subsequent discussion, which I recall being very brief.) I wanted to add, show them how responsible, sensible adults function in the political world, rather than turning them into rude, closed-minded zealots. And try not to be too cynical ourselves.

Even if some were intolerant and rude in the meeting, most were civil, and most of those stayed to the end, presumably welcoming the intelligent discussion which kept returning and pushing the rudeness, intolerance, and zealotry aside.

If There's a Single Point Here . . .

I'm not suggesting any of the people I've mentioned unfavorably should be shunned, silenced, or otherwise abused. They have as much right to speak their minds as you and I do -- at least, to do so civilly -- and they are not altogether wrong. I'm also not suggesting that the clueless cannot be enlightened or the zealots reasoned with on some points, if we are patient and relentlessly sensible. But if they speak their minds in a public forum, they invite the rest of us to consider -- favorably or otherwise -- what they said.

I am suggesting that those with more mature political sensibilities -- forgive me if I include myself -- must not allow either of these frustrating demographics to discourage our own involvement, to lure us to their extremes, or to increase their political power at any level of government. They are energized by problems which are quite real and genuinely ominous, but they are not part of a useful solution. In some ways they become part of the problem, by making serious discussion of real solutions more difficult.

Above all, perhaps, we must insure that there is a a conspicuous, steady, sensible, principled refuge for the newly engaged who are fleeing the relentless, spendthrift statism of the current regime. Otherwise, if the zealots are the only opposition they can see, these may either join the zealots or withdraw again from the public square. Neither is a happy outcome. We need them to be involved.

Tim Osborn comments (2/21/10, via Facebook)

Wow. Thank you for your insights on this, David. Wish I could have been there, but alas alack, family issues are more important at times and must be taken care of.

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