Where Have You Gone, Joe the Citizen?

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As a freshman Democrat, Representative Frank Kratovil Jr. figured he would spend the August recess reconnecting with the folks back home. Perhaps he should have known this would be easier said than done when an opponent of health care reform hanged him in effigy outside his district office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Undaunted, Mr. Kratovil tried last week to hold “Congress on Your Corner” sessions intended, he said, to help voters with “casework matters” — Social Security benefits and the like. On Tuesday, 200 angry conservatives confronted him over health care in an elementary school cafeteria. On Thursday, liberals struck back: President Obama’s political organization sent a mass e-mailing urging supporters to turn out for a Kratovil event at a library, to “make sure your support for health insurance reform is seen and heard.”...

...“We’re living in the era of the viral town meeting,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who once worked as a Senate aide. “I remember back in the ’70s getting identically worded telegrams in the thousands. What’s happened now is the technology of protest has metastasized, and it threatens to overwhelm the relationship between members of Congress and their constituents.”

Citizen gatherings, of course, are as old as the republic itself, but as a form of constituent relations town hall meetings are relatively new. In the 19th century, lawmakers spent more time at home, mingling with voters at block parties, barbecues and parades. Organized complaints came in the form of petitions; by the 1950s, there were mass letter-writing campaigns. In recent decades, with lawmakers shuttling between Washington and their districts, squeezing constituent meetings into weekends and short breaks, town halls emerged as a convenient one-stop-shopping for lawmakers to hear citizens’ concerns. Presidents used them too; in 1978, Jimmy Carter tried to sell voters on the Panama Canal treaty by phoning town hall meetings...

...In some respects, last week’s town halls — fueled on the right by antitax groups backed partly by industry, and on the left by unions — are the logical outgrowth of decades of American political activism. Community organizing is nothing new; President Obama made an early career of it. The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the anti-abortion movement, the rise of the religious right — all grew out of grassroots campaigns conducted by methodical organizers.

Accusations of phony grassroots campaigns — “Astroturf,” in Washington argot — also are not new. When Richard Viguerie, the conservative strategist, pioneered the use of direct mail to raise money in the 1970s, he quickly came under attack for creating “the impression of a mass uprising when there were organizers behind it,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University.

But last week’s “town brawls,” as the news media dubbed them, do seem to represent a shift. Instead of each side’s holding rallies and protests, the activism seemed directed personally at lawmakers, with the aim of overwhelming them. Mr. Kratovil, the Maryland Democrat, opposes the health care legislation moving through the House. But he was unable to get his point across, he said. “They simply want to yell when you talk.”...

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