(Quin Hillyer, Liberty Headlines) Angry crowds can be tamed.
That’s what some Republican lawmakers are finding out as leftist critics create hostile atmospheres at congressional “town hall” meetings around the country.
In Mobile, Ala. Monday night, third-term U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne faced a crowd described by the local paper as “raucous,” but maintained enough order for what even some of his detractors described as a useful exchange of views. The approach he took mirrored some of the advice Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a veteran of extremely vociferous opposition, offered in an interview published the next day by the conservative-reform site Opportunity Lives.
Elsewhere, Byrne’s fellow third-termer David Valadao of California is taking an entirely different approach that might be described as “town hall lite.”
The discussions about crowd control come as numerous speakers at congressional town halls have been shouted down, and as some House or Senate members have cancelled or refused to hold their accustomed meetings, due to organized leftist fervor against conservatives and against President Trump. In at least one town meeting, protesters even tried to shout down the opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
California’s Valadao has replaced the large-forum town halls with small-group information sessions, as has Ohio’s U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. Valadao’s small-group sessions last just ten minutes each, but offer attendees the advantage of concentrated time with the congressman without the hindrance of unruly crowds yelling to drown out the questions and answers.
As explained by Daniel Allott at the Washington Examiner:
Valadao’s approach is smart. Social science tells is us that when we’re in crowds, we tend to interact with one another differently than when we’re in small groups or in one-on-one settings. In a group, each individual tends to feel less responsibility for their behavior, less duty to act civilly, and that feeling tends to lessen as the size of the group gets larger. That’s why it’s called the “mob mentality.” There is also what is called a diffusion of responsibility, whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for what’s going on when other people are present. When everyone else is hurling insults at the poor guy up on stage, it’s easier to join in. People rarely behave this way in one-on-one meetings, where we’d feel much more embarrassed about yelling and screaming at someone.
Wisconsin Gov. Walker in 2011 faced not just unruly town halls, but a weeks-long, sometimes physically confrontational “occupation” of the area surrounding his state capitol by tens of thousands of protesters. He advises congressmen to “keep calm; stay steady… The people in my state eventually came to see that even though they may not have agreed with our policy points all the time, they nevertheless looked at all the crazy, over-the-top stuff the protestors were doing and said, ‘Hey, that doesn’t represent me,’ and they begin to be more open to our philosophy and our conservative principles.” And, as reported by Opportunity Lives, “Ultimately, the best course of action is for House members to listen, listen and listen some more, Walker said. ‘If you have a town hall event slated to last an hour, better make it three hours.’”
In Alabama, Byrne practiced exactly that approach, along with some careful planning and stage management for this, his 76th town hall meeting since being elected in 2013. Local police were on hand (with a light but noticeable touch) to ensure order, and to make sure that the meeting room’s capacity was not exceeded. (About 300 people were inside, with another 250 milling around the parking lot after capacity was reached.) Attendees were asked to enter single file, and were asked by police to relinquish any signs before entering. Chairs not only were provided for all inside, but all (except media) were told they were required to sit. As all those factors already were adding to a sense of orderliness, Byrne opened the meeting with a local Boy Scout troop singing “God Bless America.” The song appeared to have a calming influence.
Then Byrne, in a noticeably relaxed but still firm way, opened by thanking everybody for coming and saying the “one rule is that we respect each other and don’t interrupt whoever is speaking.” And, as Walker would advise the next day, Byrne not only kept calm throughout and never interrupted even the wordiest questioners/commenters, but never once raised his voice in frustration. While a minority of critics occasionally yelled that Byrne was supposedly not answering the question asked (usually because he would focus on, say, one part of a four- or five-part question), he answered each question with a knowledgeable litany of facts and reasoned arguments, showing firm command of the subjects at hand.
As it turned out, while a minority of liberal attendees booed and hissed just about every conservative utterance, the only semi-serious confrontation came when a right-wing agitator from out of state, who earlier had been passing out literature strangely attacking the conservative Byrne for somehow being too liberal, heckled a long-winded African-American woman who had worked herself near tears while asking her question. His heckling drew yells and a face-to-face confrontation with a local liberal, Todd Duren. The right-winger, who also had not abided by the rule about being seated, was politely escorted out.
After the meeting – which Byrne allowed to go for nearly an hour and a half, 30 minutes longer than scheduled – the liberal Duren, who had continued to be the most vocal in yelling criticism at Byrne and at the few conservatives who dared ask questions, calmed down noticeably.
Duren said that while he still was determined to make Byrne feel heat from “progressive” constituents, “I give him credit for coming here and listening and answering.” He was still liberal, but no longer seemed angry – a victory, of a sort, for Byrne’s determination to promote civil discourse.