Milwaukee Journal SentinelEarlier this month, my colleague Eric Harris, who serves as communications director for Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), published a perspective in The Washington Post on the volume of phone calls being made to Congress in recent weeks.
In his piece, Harris thanks “furious callers who continue to bombard” their office because “their sentiments come from a genuine place of sincerity and alarm” about the current administration. He also labels these calls as a “spontaneous grass-roots uprising.”
From where I’m sitting, “spontaneous grass-roots uprising” is a gross mischaracterization of what actually is occurring on Capitol Hill and in district offices throughout the nation, and specifically here in Wisconsin.
As communications director for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), I’ve also spent a fair amount of time answering phone calls. Since the start of 2017, on average we have received 10 times more calls than in the previous year. The majority of calls are from individuals reading identical scripts, many of whom are not constituents of Sensenbrenner.
The terms “spontaneous” and “scripted” are in direct opposition to each other. Since it’s clear this “uprising” is scripted, I’m not sure how anyone could argue spontaneity.
I do share Harris’s sentiment that constituent calls and communications are always welcome in Sensenbrenner’s office. In fact, Sensenbrenner has made it a point to be highly accessible and responsive to his constituents, no matter their ideology, which is why he holds more in-person town hall meetings than any member of Congress — more than 100 annually.
However, much like the scripted calls we receive each day, Sensenbrenner’s town hall meetings have been inundated with planned opposition — individuals who come to meetings with scripted questions and a predetermined plan to disrupt proceedings.
This is, unfortunately, the new normal in today’s political climate. But it wasn’t always this way.
As recently as last fall, town hall meetings were still legitimate forums for constituents to discuss ideas and concerns with their representatives. In Sensenbrenner’s district, small groups of constituents would come to his town halls and speak with him directly. They often held opposing views, but they were earnest and honest. They respected the congressman’s position, and, although they disagreed, they allowed their fellow constituents to speak without interruption. People could leave knowing their voices were heard. There was no heckling, no coarse or abusive language and no personal attacks on the congressman’s character.
Now, due to the recent uprising of the national protest group, Indivisible, the days of productive, meaningful town hall meetings are obsolete. In our district and across the country, civil discourse has given way to planned protests, frequent disruptions and stunts performed to capture embarrassing footage of Republican representatives; footage the media will publicize no matter how banal.
Indivisible’s local group leaders mobilize their members to attend meetings, often recruiting the same people to follow a representative to multiple meetings. They provide prewritten questions to group members and have them ask them repeatedly at every meeting. They rehearse asking questions and follow-ups prior to meetings, and they strategize over how to best agitate representatives in the hopes they can catch something on film that can be misconstrued or taken out of context.
Additionally, local Indivisible chapters hold weekly protests at district offices nationwide, even when they know the member of Congress is not there.
Every American has the right to free speech and assembly; however, what do these tactics actually accomplish? This brand of disruptive behavior and adverse commentary further infects an already inauspicious political climate. This type of political exhibition divides families, friends and neighbors. But, most significantly, it robs others of their opportunity to have an equal say in the political process.
Thanks to Newton’s Third Law, we know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, the reaction to outlandish behavior by protest groups is constituents losing their opportunity to speak to their representatives. It is individuals being forced to wait longer to have their issues with the federal government resolved because protesters are monopolizing the time and attention of district case workers. It is an environment that separates, disparages and demeans people with diverse opinions and beliefs.
Sensenbrenner likes to say that we can disagree without being disagreeable. For many years, this was true and I believe it can be true again. Differences of opinion and spirited debate can exist without blatant disrespect, cheap personal attacks and media fanfare. As Americans, I know we can get back to that place with a little self-reflection, honesty and understanding. And with a little luck, maybe it will start before our next town hall meeting.
Nicole Tieman is communications director for U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). Sign up for our newsletter, Real Time Opinion, for a weekly roundup of the best commentary in Wisconsin, right, center and left.