When Politicians Face an Angry Public

Some members of Congress are having rough experiences at town hall meetings. For local officials, it's all in a day's work.
April 5, 2017
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

The recent discomfiture experienced by some members of Congress facing angry crowds at town hall meetings in their districts has drawn considerable attention. The prospect of thoroughgoing changes to our health-care system was the salient issue driving angry constituent responses, but not the only one. Some members of Congress declined to attend such meetings at all, while others suffered through them, clearly regarding them as ordeals from which they would rather be spared.

Local-government officials everywhere have to have found this manifest angst about town hall meetings richly amusing. Local officials, after all, conduct such meetings as a matter of routine. Mayors, council members, county supervisors and other elected officials at the local level meet with upset constituents on a continuous basis -- it is what they do. As a local-government administrator, I attended such meetings for 35 years. Local officials see nothing unusual or threatening or even particularly difficult about them.

There are lessons to be learned here, and they are not complimentary to federal-level office-holders. These recent experiences with town hall meetings may or may not prove consequential, but they illustrate stark differences in the practice of politics between those who hold local office and those elected to federal office, many of whom had never served at the local or state level.

The local political arena is unscripted and continuously evolving. The intrinsic realities of local government ensure that local officials will continuously interact with people from all viewpoints, neighborhoods and circumstances. And in addition to the formal interactions, there is a large universe of casual interactions, at grocery stores, restaurants, shops and on the streets. The only way for local-government officials to get away from constant interaction with the public is to leave town.

The opposite is true for federal-level officials. In the course of their daily political work they interact little with their constituents; they leave it to their staffs. It's the nature of their jobs. The only way for members of Congress to interact with their voters is to head home.

Federal elected officials are hugely insulated and privileged. The moment they assume office, they begin to be addressed by their new formal titles, and they receive deference accordingly. They are free to dedicate themselves to fund-raising and advancing their policy agendas. They may regard their fund-raising duties as a burden, but calling supporters and asking for money is a lot easier than meeting with upset constituents.

Local elected officials have an altogether different experience. Election elevates them to the front page of the local paper, but never to a pedestal. The level of respect accorded to them is personal and individual. One can gain or lose respect as an office-holder, to be sure, but the mere fact of holding an office produces no respect. Widely respected people tend to remain widely respected as local office-holders; less respected people tend to remain less respected.

In short, local officials don't have the luxury of doing the public's business from Washington, D.C. (or from state capitals either). They must remain local, accessible to one and all, constantly visible and in constant interaction. Their every foible is on display. They are obliged to have myriad discussions about the complexities of their constituents' lives and the complexities that attend to everything that government does. Political bullet points and scripts rarely serve them well.

So while the prospect of facing angry citizens is clearly a problem for many congressional representatives, it is no such thing for most local officials. They would have handled these meetings with aplomb. There is no one right way, of course, but I can hear the voices of those I worked for saying words like these: "I am here to listen to and learn from you. It is my job to represent you, not dictate to you. I will be happy to meet all night, and to schedule as many additional meetings as you like. I am here to serve your well-being, not my own."

That many federal elected officials feel trepidation about meeting with voters is a sign of how privileged, and how removed from their constituents' everyday experience, these politicians are. They are happy to enjoy the benefits of elective office, but want to limit their engagement with voters and the general public to scripted and carefully structured scenarios. Most local-government officials, in contrast, welcome town hall meetings teeming with unhappy people as a learning experience and chance to hone their political skills.

Their purpose, after all, is to represent these people. What better way to cultivate respect and support than to demonstrate respect and support to those motivated to come out and meet with them, regardless of their political persuasions?