I spent part of last week following a congressman around the sun-baked precincts of West Texas. I watched Will Hurd meet with constituents, deliver his stump speech, and wax lyrical about the Dairy Queen Blizzard.
I listened to voters tell me how much they admired Hurd, a moderate Republican in the only competitive district in Texas. I also watched the folks who don’t admire Hurd stand up and heckle to interrupt his stump speech. I wondered: “Why are you doing this?”
I had spoken with a couple of them before the event, so the answer should have been easy. They were nice people — middle-aged, middle-class and passionate about politics. One of them was a lifelong Democrat, another a former Republican who parted ways with the GOP after the Tea Party began to rise. Both were Democratic precinct chairs. I heard their issues, which were about what you’d expect: health care, Planned Parenthood, immigration, and the man sitting in the Oval Office. Given my criticisms of the Republican health care efforts, and my own qualms about Trump’s presidency, I found it easy to sympathize.
But understanding someone’s goals doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the tactics they’ve chosen to reach them. I might sympathize, but not everyone there did. And the more aggressive their questioning got, the less sympathy there seemed to be for their views.
The town hall was being held in a Dairy Queen southwest of San Antonio; the crowd was largely white, and judging from their reaction to the repeated interruptions, largely conservative. There were rolled eyes; there were people calling “You asked your question.” The audience began to murmur as the back-and-forth wore on. The next day, at a coffee shop in Castroville, more protesters arrived, and the heckling got more intense. So did the reaction. The crowd in Castroville seemed to be more liberal, more sympathetic to the protesters — but nonetheless, a soft-spoken man who had recently moved to Castroville turned around, laid a finger over his lips, and issued a fierce “hush!”
These San Antonio suburbs are quiet, polite places; it seems unlikely that these tactics changed anyone’s mind. Nor did they provide new information to Hurd, who addressed his interlocutors by name and was clearly familiar with their stance on the issues. Which brings us back to the question I asked above: What is the purpose of these tactics?
That’s a question that I find myself asking a lot these days. The antifas setting fire to Berkeley … Black Lives Matter blocking highways … these demonstrations certainly carry a message. And because it’s showy, it’s more likely to end up on the evening news (or in a Bloomberg View column). Unfortunately, it’s no good getting publicity for your message if the result is people hating the message and the messenger.
I don’t mean to suggest that interrupting a congressman is somehow morally equivalent to breaking windows and setting fires. Vigorous debate is a proud part of our democratic tradition, and those Democratic precinct captains had every right to confront their representative with their disagreements.
But what this tactic does have in common with more extreme forms of protest is that interrupting violates a social norm. It’s on the other end of that spectrum from breaking windows and setting fires. But it’s still a violation, however minor, and norm violations make other people uncomfortable.