12 August 2011

Is there a constituency for compromise?

If you read the New York Times, you're more likely to think "no" after perusing this article that follows legislators to "town hall" meetings following the vote to increase the debt ceiling. Jennifer Steinhauer reports that Republican and Democratic legislators alike are being "push[ed] to get back into the ring and fight harder" by angry constituents, none of whom seem satisfied with the debt-ceiling deal. Democrats feel that their leaders gave away too much, and many Republicans somehow feel the same way about their representatives. Does this mean that the only people calling for moderation and compromise are the pundits in the news and opinion media?

The answer depends on how representative you take "town halls" to be. Steinhauer notes that they are often packed, spontaneously or deliberately, with activist partisans, most of whom favor the representative holding the meeting while others are organized hecklers. It would be hard for a "town hall" not to be a partisan environment, whether in its unanimity in favor of the representative or in its division along standard party lines. If there is a mass constituency for compromise, they're most likely not attending "town halls" because they recognize them as partisan rallies or bipartisan shouting matches.

It's possible that the more spontaneous or random a political visit is, the more likely that we'd find voices for moderation. Scheduled events result in self-selected or pre-screened audiences that are virtually guaranteed to be partisan. At the least, partisanship is likely to drown out any individual who'd dare to speak for compromise based on moderation. Politicians might get different messages from constituents if they attempted unannounced appearances in apolitical settings. A more representative "town hall" might result if attendees were chosen at random from the census or the city directory. If any politician actually wants to hear constituents call for compromise, or if he or she simply wants to hear the more authentic voice of the constituency, the politician must strive to eliminate the filter of party. A "town hall," if anything, concentrates partisanship by attracting activists of both great sides. A good reporter should know better than to use them to determine whether Americans want compromise.

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